Mike Pence was the unlikely winner of the vice presidential debate
Like millions of other Americans I found the experience of watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden exhausting. Three septuagenarians shouted at each other for 90 minutes, an amazing achievement given that only two of them are running for office. It was an appalling spectacle, crude, obnoxious, unedifying, almost totally incoherent.
It was also, on balance, more enjoyable than what we watched on Wednesday night. This is probably because despite the passivity of the moderator, USA Today's Susan Page, the exchange between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence resembled an actual debate. It even had a clear winner in Pence, who was just boring enough to grind this one out.
I wasn't sure he had it in him. I expected more sullen head shaking and passive-aggressive whining, but with a handful of exceptions the vice president was firmly in control of the proceedings throughout the evening. It certainly gives me no pleasure to say so, but Pence sounded like someone at least theoretically capable of being president.
When the question was about the environment, he was talking about taxes. When the question was about abortion and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, he banged on about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. At one point I spent so much time trying to remember what he was supposed to be talking about (it turned out that it was China) that I didn't even catch the answer. By the end of the evening he was at least two questions behind.
And somehow it worked. Instead of sounding like an out-of-touch Hoosier grandpa, he seemed to be in control. Like an aging quarterback who knows how to work the refs, he was the clear beneficiary of Page's desire not to appear overbearing. She let him say whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He interrupted at will. He exceeded his apportioned two minutes. When Harris tried to do the same thing, she generally found herself shut down.
He also landed a handful of real blows. Harris had nothing to say in response to his plain statement of her appalling record on race as attorney general of California. He was equally forceful on the subjects of the Green New Deal and court packing. Meanwhile the most memorable thing Harris said all evening was about toilet paper. She frowned and smirked a lot. The closest she came to genuine outrage was expressed on behalf of John McCain, against whom her own running mate ran in 2008, in those halcyon days when the late Arizona Republican senator was considered a right-wing monster instead of the George Washington of our age.
This is not to say that there were no miscues for the vice president. "Free and fair trade," a slogan Pence has been employing for years, is not a winning line in Midwestern swing states, as Trump himself proved in 2016. It was also strange that he said nothing about Harris' own criticism of Biden's shifting attitudes on race and crime. But the single most inexplicable thing was his inability (or simple unwillingness) to defend or even to mention Trump's nationwide moratorium on evictions after Harris raised the question of Americans worried about paying their rent. Say what you like about Trump, but if he had been asked to say whether China is an adversary of the United States, he would have given a long, wayward but memorable answer. Also: Why did nobody tell him about the fly that seemed to be stuck to his hairspray?
Will any of this make a difference in 27 days? I have my doubts about whether any debate between presidential candidates, much less an undercard fight like this one, has ever meaningfully altered the trajectory of a modern election. But to the extent that these things matter at all, Pence exceeded expectations, and that cannot be a bad thing.
Mother will be pleased.