Is That It?: Why America Has Already Forgotten the Vice Presidential Debate

(image source: BBC)

It happened Wednesday night, but by the following morning, the Biden campaign had released a signature flyswatter on their campaign website with the catchy inscription: “Truth over Flies.” Reminiscent of the candidate’s “Truth Over Lies” campaign slogan, I sure hope the quick-witted intern received a promotion (they probably didn’t). As the fly that landed on Mike Pence consumed social media, some feel the negative press counts as a win for Harris. However, during a night when America counted on the clear, calm relay of information regarding the platforms of the presidential candidates, both Harris and Pence suffered a loss. 

Bugs aside, both candidates stepped up to the podium with a clear set of goals. With Joe Biden leading substantially in recent polls, all Harris had to do was 1) not say anything drastically horrible and 2) sell herself to moderates. As the underdog, Pence simply needed to stick to what he does best; relaying Trump’s policies in complete sentences. 

Realizing Harris’s weak spot as one of the most progressive members of the senate, Pence went in for the kill. He prodded his opponent with progressive policies from her former campaign that differed from Biden’s, including a ban on fracking, her co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal, and completely repealing Trump’s tax cuts. Pence sought to illuminate a division within the Biden-Harris campaign. Add in his signature illustration of a Socialist America (one fraught with anarchy, looted stores, and a 4-billion dollar tax raise), and you’ve got a perfectly executed cocktail for fearful grandparents. 

Right off the bat, Harris queued into Joe Biden’s debate strategy. Instead of engaging with her opponent, she stared down the camera lens and spoke directly to the American people. However, this move isn’t typical of the former Vice President, as his “alpha male dominance” rocked the debate stage in previous years. Facing a new breed of opponent, Biden had to reinvent his strategy. Harris and Biden work as a duo because they bring the “guns and butter” to the table, where Trump and Pence pack “guns and more guns.” Harris is an excellent and highly skilled debater—her quick wit and confident, unfazed comebacks set her ahead in the primaries. Pence is no Donald Trump at the podium, and Harris could’ve easily measured up without resorting to Biden’s strategy. Her attempt at a controlled, mild-mannered demeanor cost her many opportunities to slam Pence’s misinformation. Brief moments of the old Harris broke through when she was interrupted, but Pence consistently got away with talking over both her and the mediator. 

Vice presidential debates don’t typically change the course of an election, but they can sway over undecided voters. Pence sought to appease the angry firecrackers of Trump’s base while appealing to moderates on the fence after the first presidential debate. Having watched previous debates and conferences, I had respect for Pence as an orator. He’s calculated, poised, and reserved—an excellent counter to Harris’ provoking style. However, what he projected on Wednesday evening was a demeanor of insecurity and desperation. He certainly got more points across than Harris, but his incessant interrupting of the moderator and his opponent made him appear anything but stable. How could he promise the American people a return to law and order if he couldn’t even agree to the terms of the debate? While his performance was messy, he was able to attack Harris on various issues she proved inept to counter. His accusations of a hidden progressive agenda, policies reflective of the Green New Deal, raising taxes, and leniency towards China were only lightly debated. Harris had the opportunity to further grill Pence on the failure of the Whitehouse to address COVID-19 but failed to deliver. 

Overall, the etiquette and delivery of Wednesday’s debate was a letdown. I had high expectations following the presidential debate, but once again I was reminded that candidates aren’t as poised at the podium as in campaign ads. Harris proved that wit and confidence only get you so far if you fail to address your opponent’s attacks. Pence’s shining moments of “mansplaining” might’ve impressed a certain demographic threatened by intelligent women, but likely failed to charm moderates. The behavioral pattern Harris and Pence quickly settled into set the rhythm for the rest of the night, briefly interrupted by the fly who stole the show. If I learned anything last Wednesday, it’s that I should never use so much hair product that I can’t feel a bug on my head.