If it is remembered at all, the first and only vice-presidential “debate” of 2020 will go down as a snoozer notable only for a third participant who flew in late and gave the audience something to buzz about on antisocial media.
The fly won. Wings down.
Before a common housefly landed on Vice President Mike Pence’s lacquered dome and stayed put for about 2 minutes, the affair was dry as a bleached bone. After last week’s ugly, embarrassing brawl between President Trump and Vice President Joe Biden, the Commission on Presidential Debates promised a more stately affair tightly controlled by a moderator empowered and expected to enforce the rules.
What we got was Trump/Biden Lite.
Pence repeatedly interrupted Sen. Kamala Harris and treated moderator Susan Page of USA Today as if she was a mosquito to be swatted away at will. Page’s response was “Thank you, vice president,” over and over and over. I respect Page as a journalist, but if she left the room, I doubt either candidate would have noticed.
Sen. Kamala Harris — a star prosecutor tasked with making a case against Trump and Trumpism — stood her ground and kept her cool, but dodged key questions and missed opportunities to damn her opponent in the strongest terms.
Pence lied all night, but Harris never tagged him with the word. “That’s not true” is a weak stand-in for “That’s a lie.” Said calmly and plainly, it’s an indictment no liar can shrug off, especially when it’s obviously true.
Pence was Pence, a robotic sycophant tasked with selling the same snake oil his boss spit at Biden in the sedate, smarmy style he perfected over four years of sucking up to Trump. Pence was playing to an audience of one as he alienated professional women who have suffered male bosses who “mansplain,” interrupt and refuse to recognize and respect women in positions of authority.
Across America, these women saw themselves in Susan Page and Kamala Harris. In Pence, they saw every jerk they ever weathered at work. Pence’s dismissive shtick will send them straight to HR on Nov. 3.
Harris was solid, assertive and classy. Every time she pushed back at Pence with an “I’m speaking now” was a win. Because Harris’ running mate is a septuagenarian, the debate was also a screen test for her in the event she ends up inheriting the director’s chair. She passed that test, but also passed on answering some tough questions.
Harris sidestepped a question about whether she and Biden have discussed his age and its inevitable effects on his presidency, and whether a Biden/Harris administration would pack the Supreme Court. She could have handled both with a general, open-ended answer, but chose to follow Pence down the rabbit hole.
Pence is comfortable there and it showed. He is the whitest man on the planet — a liability when seated across from the first woman of color nominated to run for the nation’s second-highest office. Pence’s answers related to race — particularly in policing — were typically tone-deaf and patronizing.
Most of the night, Pence simply refused to answer Page’s questions and she not only allowed it but thanked him as he rambled. Pence effectively nullified questions about the COVID-infected president’s health, climate change, Roe v. Wade, pre-existing conditions and what he would do if Trump loses and contests the election by ignoring them. He filibustered relentlessly, eating up valuable time and inspiring viewers to reach for the remote.
Then the fly arrived.
Its extended stay atop Pence’s head was the highlight of a dud debate and the only aspect anyone will remember. The fly got the lion’s share of the post-debate buzz, which obviously bugged Trump, who yanked back the morning headlines by refusing to participate in next Thursday’s presidential debate.
The debate commission announced today that the debate will be held virtually. Trump — already a superspreader of a disease he once dismissed as a hoax that affects “virtually no one” — said he won’t participate unless he’s given the opportunity to further spread an airborne infectious disease.
The commission should hold the virtual debate as scheduled. If Trump doesn’t show up, let Biden debate the fly.