Kamala Harris' 'high press' edges out Mike Pence's 'parked bus', but in the end it won't really matter
Both Mike Pence and Kamala Harris appeared to have taken notes from last week's street fight and came to Wednesday evening's event at the University of Utah prepared
That was better.
Not necessarily in terms of content, but certainly in terms of conduct.
Nevertheless, the vice-presidential debate between incumbent Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris came as a breath of fresh air compared to the slugfest between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden last week. This was typified by Pence's opening remarks of, "Senator Harris, it's a privilege to be on this stage with you" before he proceeded to acknowledge her historical achievements. It's safe to conclude that this was more politeness and courtesy than we saw during the entire 98-minute disaster that was last week's presidential debate.
All very nice so far.
Vice-presidential debates, by their very nature, are a strange beast.
In presidential debates, the ones at the United Nations or even those conducted in classrooms, debaters are essentially tasked with defending their position — whether assigned or adopted. In contrast, a vice-presidential debate sees participants spend the majority of their time defending the president/presidential candidate's positions, record, behaviour and statements. When you consider the consequences of winning (your president/presidential candidate looks good) and losing (you look bad) a debate of this sort, you realise it's a pretty thankless job.
Still, somebody's got to do it and the job, as it would turn out, fell to two people who seemed very much at ease with it. Harris, the former attorney-general of California, brought all her courtroom nous to an occasion that unarguably demanded it, while Pence showcased his ability to stand by the president, his policy and pronouncements. It may be recalled, however, that Pence wasn't always so comfortable with defending Trump. As a matter of fact, four years ago when squaring off against Tim Kaine at the vice-presidential debate, Pence was unable to or refused to defend Trump's remarks and record on at least six occasions — something Kaine gleefully pointed out.
But then, Trump wasn't the president back in October 2016 and Pence hadn't spent four years learning to sugarcoat, soften or defend his boss' decisions and statements.
Learnings from last week
Both the Pence and Harris camps appeared to have taken notes from last week's street fight and came to Wednesday evening's event at the University of Utah prepared. This was evident in the way both participants kept their civility but spared no opportunity to lash out at the opponent with bits and pieces of carefully-memorised research. Unlike Trump and Biden, who blustered and fumbled (respectively) through key talking points, Pence and Harris were calmer and much more composed. Additionally, they both took a cue from Biden's approach last week and resorted, on several instances, to taking their opponent out of the picture by speaking directly to the American voter.
If we're talking about preparation, we would be remiss not to mention the organisers — who had swapped out the daises from last time for desks and chairs, and placed plexiglass shields between the participants — and moderator, USA Today's Washington bureau chief Susan Page — who came in with a power-packed and probing set of questions. In fact, the only entity that hadn't prepared sufficiently was whoever was in charge of setting the rules and giving the moderator powers.
For the second debate in a row, we saw interruptions — albeit more infrequently than last week — go unchecked, debaters drift far away from the topic and in some instances, avoid it altogether.
Moderator: Is water wet?
Pence: Susan, I wanna talk about sand.
— Zach Braff (@zachbraff) October 8, 2020
While certainly amusing and apt, Pence wasn't the only one guilty of answering a question with a completely unrelated answer, because Harris indulged in a fair bit of that herself. In any case, after the first presidential debate and Wednesday evening's vice-presidential debate, it's become painfully clear that moderators for the last two presidential debates will need greater powers if they are to get actual answers out of participants. Whether this means being able to mute microphones, stop the clock or something else entirely remains to be seen
Many questions, few answers
Right out of the gate, Page sought to set the agenda for the evening by asking Harris and Pence about the American COVID-19 response. And while the former took the opportunity to go after the Trump administration's slow reveal (for want of a better term) of details about the coronavirus , Pence tore into Biden's plan, calling it a case of plagiarism. We were off to a feisty but controlled start. Questions about COVID-19 were followed by some about the threat of presidential disability (given Trump and Biden's respective ages), whether or not the president's health was a matter of public record, the economy, the climate and whether there is racial justice in America.
I mentioned a little while earlier that the questions were 'power-packed and probing', and they were. That the participants chose not to answer them is a different story altogether.
While Harris turned a question about the president's health records into a hectoring demand for Trump to make his taxes public, Pence responded to a question about the US alienating its allies into a word salad about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Qasem Soleimani, and how killing them was extremely important. When the extremely timely and pertinent question of whether they viewed China as the US' competitor, adversary or enemy was asked, neither gave a straight answer. When asked about what would happen if Trump refused to agree to a peaceful transition of power in the event of a Biden-Harris victory next month, neither gave a straight answer.
Harris, to her credit, was able to respond to a handful of questions with proper answers.
Unfortunately for the vice-president, the fly that landed on his head in the middle of the debate (and went on to become a social media legend in the minutes after) demonstrated an ability to stay on topic far more than he did.
The high press and parking the bus
In the absence of any substantive content to critically dissect, it's worth looking at the debating techniques employed by the duo over the course of the event. And in terms of strategy, the contest played out a bit like a football match, with one team 'parking the bus' and the other deploying the 'high press'.
Often seen sporting a furrowed brow and wearing a faraway look with an uneasy calm across his face, Pence looked tired from the time the debate began. His principal strategy, just as in 2016's vice-presidential debate, remains to sit back, defend deep (as it were) and absorb pressure in the form of waves and waves of attack, before unleashing a counterattack. At times, the counterattack would come in the form of obfuscation, deflection or diversion, but the strategy was more to keep Harris from scoring any points than to prolifically notch up points against her.
An example of the Pence counterattack was seen during the segment on the COVID-19 , where after closing his eyes and gently shaking his head in the face of Harris' allegations of a botched response to the pandemic, he unfurled an emotive counterattack, urging the senator not to "play politics with people's health". He then took the opportunity to go off on a little ramble about the US being on the verge of rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine "in record time, in unheard-of time".
Harris, on the other hand, frequently shot withering looks at Pence, noticeably pursing her lips and shaking her head in a pronounced manner at his remarks, smiling smugly when he'd been caught in an apparent lie and looking over at him contemptuously when he appeared to be attacking her record. It's probably fair to say Biden's running mate said as much with her body language — nearly jumping out of her seat at one point — as she did with her words.
In contrast to her opponent's defensive tactics, the senator adopted the high-press — relentless waves of attack (seen in her responses to questions on US foreign policy, the economy and COVID-19 ) and a tendency to defend while in the attack. A case in point was the question about appointments to the US Supreme Court, where when confronted with the Democratic Party's record, whipped out an example of Abraham Lincoln's as both a defence of her party's actions and a takedown of Pence's argument. And in doing so, regained her momentum. Coupled with a few stern rebukes of "Mr Vice-President, I am speaking" to blunt interruptions by the vice-president, Harris stuck to her strategy throughout.
Who won? Who cares?
As the vice-presidential debate drew to a close, there was a sense of relief that the evening's proceedings were less about personality than policy and that there were no blatant fouls — to carry on with the football metaphor a little while longer. But what did the vice-president and the vice-presidential hopeful actually say to give voters some food for thought?
Sadly, and much as with the last vice-presidential debate, not a lot.
We saw Harris struggle to effectively deal with questions about the Green New Deal — a proposed piece of legislation that has turned into quite the hot potato for the Biden-Harris campaign and indeed, the Democratic Party at large. We also saw her hold back from saying anything critical about China and responding to a question of how she views the country with a scathing denouncement of Trump's Beijing policy. And while she defended Biden, his remarks and policies as vice-president with gusto, she was fiercest when defending her own record as senator and attorney-general. Whether or not this plays out in her favour among voters remains to be seen.
Political analyst Matthew Dowd observed on ABC News that "Pence misleads and prevaricates as much as Trump; he just does it with more conviction and sincerity" and that was in evidence during the debate. Rather gallingly, he twice told Harris, "You're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts" when defending Trump's claims. The irony could not possibly have been lost on him. But that isn't to say he didn't score a few points of his own. Projecting the Democratic Party's green policies as antithetical to American innovation, sovereignty and jobs would definitely have struck a chord with a significant chunk of voters. So too would his efforts to paint the Biden-Harris campaign as 'anti-Christian' for opposing the appointment of Trump's pick for the Supreme Court seat occupied until recently by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
At the end of the day, vice-presidential debates almost never decide the course of an election and this trend is unlikely to be bucked this year. At best, it was a nice change of track from the ill-tempered Trump-Biden brawl and at worst, it was just another example of how deeply entrenched differences between the Republicans and Democrats are, and how bitter it's all become. If a winner had to be declared, it would probably be Harris on account of answering more questions than Pence could and spending less time waffling almost extemporaneously than he did.
But, come 3 November, it's not going to matter. Not a jot.
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