• Ryan O'Connell

Harris Trounced Pence in the VP Debate

Updated: Oct 11, 2020

Last week Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence auditioned to run for President in four years. Sen. Harris passed with flying colors. She also helped the Democratic ticket maintain its lead in the polls.

Meanwhile, Mike Pence’s stiff, uninspiring performance did not enhance his image or repair the damage from Donald Trump’s rampage in his debate with Joe Biden. Instead, the Vice President’s overbearing demeanor aggravated the Republicans’ problems with female voters.

Harris: Skewering Pence with a Smile

Kamala Harris has learned from her missteps as a candidate in the Democratic primaries. The Senator’s harsh attacks on Joe Biden during those debates provided a short-lived boost for her campaign, but they quickly boomeranged against her. Like Pete Buttigieg, Harris now skewers her opponent with a smile.

Harris is also playing to her formidable strengths as a retail politician. In person, the Senator exudes warmth and charisma, and she has an infectious laugh. Unlike Pence, she has a sense of humor. Harris has realized that she does not have to act like a tough prosecutor to impress voters.

Some commentators have criticized Harris for not punching back more at Pence, and she did miss some opportunities, but overall she was following a smart strategy. Harris was careful to avoid appearing “angry” or “nasty”, which could have given the Republicans some ammunition. Fox News was reduced to complaining that the Senator smiled a lot. That’s a pretty weak line of attack.

Here’s another measure of Harris’ success: she clearly upset Donald J. Trump. After the debate, the President called Harris a “monster” and even a “communist”. How 1950s…

Furthermore, Harris delivered plenty of zingers, particularly in the crucial, early part of the debate, when most voters were watching. Like a good trial lawyer, Harris summarized the case in her opening statement, as she pounded Trump (and Pence by implication) for mishandling the coronavirus. That is the defining issue of this election for most voters. Harris tersely listed a few, key statistics about the numbers of dead Americans and the massive hit to the economy to drive home her points.

Pence did not have an effective response.

Pence: Trump’s Mini Me

Mike Pence was dealt a tough hand, but he could have played his cards better.

Many moderate women Republican voters have been alienated by Trump’s rough attacks on his opponents, in general, and his dismissive comments about female politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, in particular. In addition, a lot of Americans have been turned off by Trump’s non-stop lying. One would have expected Pence to be respectful toward the two women on the stage and careful in his allegations against the Democrats.

Instead, the Vice President came across as a smoother, Mini Me version of Donald Trump.

Pence repeatedly violated the time limit of two minutes for a candidate to speak. He frequently talked over the moderator, Susan Page, at considerable length, as she implored him to stop speaking. That was not a good visual. Pence also tried several times to interrupt Harris, but she stood her ground, saying, with a smile, “I’m speaking, please let me finish”.

It’s not clear what Pence thought he was accomplishing with his approach. The Vice President did not gain more air time. Harris often asked for “equal time”, and Page gave it to her, so the two candidates spoke about the same amount.

Pence came across as arrogant and entitled, and his steamrolling of Page and Harris undoubtedly angered many women watching the debate. That’s no way to win back disgruntled female voters in the suburbs, whether they are Republicans or independents.

photo: CNN.com

Pence Crossed the Line on Truthiness

Politicians often stretch the truth when they criticize their opponents, of course. But like Trump, Pence told some bald-faced lies during the debate, as he attacked Biden for positions he does not hold, such as banning fracking and supporting the Green New Deal. Pence also went too far in mischaracterizing some of Biden’s key proposals, as he argued that Biden’s plans would raise most Americans’ taxes and hurt the economy.

In contrast, Harris was pretty accurate in her comments.

Pence got into trouble several times, as Harris succinctly rebutted his accusations. In one notable exchange, Harris gave a short, punchy response to Pence’s claims:

· “Joe Biden will not ban fracking”

· “Joe Biden will not raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year”

· “Joe Biden’s economic plan will create millions of jobs, according to Moody’s”

The first two statements were correct, and Harris was wise to quote an impartial source on the third point. In addition, Pence told some whoppers that further undermined his credibility. Pence said “we are right now producing tens of millions of doses” of a vaccine. However, as everyone knows, the FDA has not approved any vaccine yet. And when Page asked Pence if climate change was an “existential issue”, the Vice President said, “I’m proud of our record on the environment”.

Trump’s base may believe such outlandish statements, but for most voters, they don’t mesh with reality. Pence didn’t help the ticket or burnish his own reputation in that regard. He seemed slippery and evasive, which won’t enhance his appeal to the general public or his prospects for 2024.

Should the Debate Format Change?

It’s a fair criticism that both candidates dodged Susan Page’s questions and focused on the key points they wanted to make. That’s a pity, because Page mostly avoided “gotcha” questions and sought answers on critical issues. But as Page herself noted after the debate, when candidates duck questions, they send important signals to voters.

Still, some tinkering with the rules might improve the debates. As we have already seen this year, holding a debate without a live audience is a better approach, compared to the circus-like atmosphere of the 2016 Presidential debates. That should be a permanent change.

Why do we limit candidates to two minutes, which forces them to speak in sound bites? And why should moderators try to squeeze in nine topics in ninety minutes? Instead, moderators could give candidates five minutes to address an issue and let their opponents respond for two to three minutes. That could facilitate more in-depth discussions of topics.

Turn Off the Mike?

Trump’s barbaric behavior during the first debate and Pence’s disregard for time limits in this debate raise this issue: should moderators be able to cut off the microphone of a candidate who is talking too much? (Some Democrats abused time limits during the primary debates, too.)

Moderators do have such control in some other countries, so it’s not unprecedented. Candidates in the U.S. might modify their behavior quickly, if such a rule were implemented fairly and across the board.

But there is already a lot of inherent friction between moderators and candidates, and a hard-and-fast rule of cutting off candidates might exacerbate the tension. Moderators should have some flexibility with regard to time limits, so they can allow candidates to complete their answers. After all, Susan Page was able to give Kamala Harris equal time.

And, with the present, less controlled format, voters can learn a great deal about a candidate’s temperament and discipline…or lack of it. Donald Trump and Mike Pence have certainly demonstrated that.

The Wall Street Democrat

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