The first normal thing about the 2020 election
Wednesday night's vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City may well have been the last chance to change the dynamic of the race for the White House.
Joe Biden has been in a solid lead for months, and over the last extraordinary two weeks that lead has widened further. Typically the debate between running mates makes little difference. But with the 74-year-old incumbent president suffering from COVID-19 and his challenger less than two months shy of 78, the chance that either Vice President Mike Pence or Sen. Kamala Harris would end up serving out part of the term for the men at the top of their tickets is considerably higher than normal.
That put more focus than usual on this debate. Yet in the end, it likely changed nothing at all.
The real wild card was Harris. Pence has been around the block and did his job well enough against Tim Kaine four years ago. He was unlikely to make a major error that would do more damage to the Trump campaign than what the president has already done himself over the past seven months, and especially since the presidential debate just over a week ago, when he seemed eager to win the prize for the most unlikeable man in American political history. But Harris is a comparative novice — one who dropped out of the Democratic primaries this cycle long before the first votes were cast, and who delivered a pedestrian speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer. It was possible that she would make some sort of misjudgment on the debate stage that would raise a new set of doubts in voters' minds about the decision to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket in less than a month.
But it didn't happen. She did fine. Not great, but easily passable. Competent. She'll win no awards for quick thinking on her feet, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who find her tendencies to lapse into biographical bromides at odd moments and to launch into tedious lists of policy priorities a little irritating. But those are common enough ticks of professional politicians.
And in the end, that's Harris' greatest weakness: She hasn't mastered the craft of faking sincerity, which means that she often sounds like she's trying very hard to do the work that the most gifted politicians do with an air of effortlessness. That translates into a vibe of inauthenticity, which will annoy and antagonize anyone who inclines toward a dislike of politicians.
But Pence isn't much better. If he were running at the top of the ticket himself, that might not be true. But because his role now, as it was four years ago, is to serve and loyally defend a largely indefensible man, his earnestness schtick can't help but come off as thoroughly smarmy. And never more so than in trying to defend the administration's record on fighting the pandemic, which now includes the White House itself becoming a major disease vector.
The low point of the evening was surely when Pence responded to Harris' reasonable expression of distrust in the safety of a vaccine that the president might rush into production before Election Day by expressing the condescending disappointment of a father who's discovered his daughter sneaking booze from the liquor cabinet: "I just ask you, stop playing politics with people's lives." A more nimble interlocutor might have replied, "Tell that to your boss, who's taken to pretending a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans is no big deal because he's afraid it'll hurt his bid for re-election." As for what Harris actually did say, I can't recall because it wasn't especially memorable.
That was the order of the evening: uninspired jabs and parries in both directions, with the main drama coming from Pence's wan effort to mimic some of the president's appalling rudeness by continually talking over Harris and especially moderator Susan Page. Page didn't distinguish herself either, doing nothing to turn the event into anything resembling either a true debate between the candidates or an in-depth interview with follow-up questions and fact checking. Instead, the evening unfolded as a series of superficial questions, with the candidates attacking the men at the head of each other's tickets, which was followed by defenses and denials. Both candidates did a lot of dodging — Pence on COVID-19, abortion, and Trump's attacks on mail-in voting; Harris on fracking, the Green New Deal, and foreign policy.
A week from now, no one will remember a thing about it. And that means that the vice presidential debate will end up changing nothing about the shape of the race.
Which just might be the only normal thing about this most abnormal of election seasons.