Pence-Harris debate likely swayed few ‘undecideds’

By ROBIN GIVHAN | The Washington Post | Published: October 8, 2020

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Vice President Mike Pence came to the debate stage at the University of Utah to praise the president’s strength and to dodge most of the questions posed by moderator Susan Page. He spoke in oleaginous tones about what he sees as the Trump administration’s sure-footed response to the coronavirus pandemic, its epic job creation record and its bravura stance against China. His tone was calm, verging on prayerful at times, but the accompanying words were often bracingly cold — most notably when the subject turned to racial justice.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., spoke with greater energy and urgency about the dire state of the country. She underscored the fear, panic and frustration that citizens feel, then affirmed that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden understands those emotions and is ready to steer the country into the light.

Harris came prepared to be interrupted. And Pence did not disappoint. As he settled into the rhythms of the debate, he steamrolled past his time limits by simply declaring that he had something he needed to say. But while Page unsuccessfully tried to silence the vice president with a “please” or a reminder of the agreed upon rules, Harris had a more ample tool kit at her disposal. She alternately threw him forceful “don’t interrupt me” glances and sometimes demanded — with a smile, always with a smile — “Mr. vice president, I’m speaking. I’m. Speaking.”

The man and woman at the bottom of the presidential tickets focused on issue and records far more than the men at the top of it did last week, but for people who have been riding this bucking bronco of a campaign season with steely determination, much of the subject matter was unremarkable.

Harris mocked the administration’s often-promised focus on infrastructure that never materialized. “I remember hearing about some infrastructure week,” she said. “I don’t think it ever happened.” Pence noted that, “President [Donald] Trump and I have a plan to improve health care,” but failed to say when they might pull that rabbit out of a hat.

It was a debate full of head-shaking, lip-pursing and eyebrow-raising for dramatic effect. Pence’s eyes looked red, and a fly landed on his hair during the latter half of the debate and settled in for such a long time that the state of its health became a more compelling subject to ponder that the millionth road-to-nowhere conversation about fracking. Harris laughed when she was appalled by Pence, studiously refraining from frowning or giving the impression that she was angry because being simultaneously angry and Black is treading into treacherous water in our culture of inequality.

Pence rose up in righteous indignation on the subject of abortion and the Supreme Court and noted that Trump’s most recent nominee, Amy Coney Barrett is “a brilliant woman, and she’ll bring a lifetime of experience and a sizable American family to the Supreme Court of the United States,” as if her seven children would be helping her to write opinions if she’s confirmed.

The most distressing moment, however, might have been when Page turned the subject to the death of Breonna Taylor. Page noted that none of the police officers involved in her shooting had been indicted on charges related to death. Did Taylor receive justice? Harris said no. Pence was more circumspect.

“Our heart breaks for the loss of any innocent American life. And the family of Breonna Taylor has our sympathies,” Pence said. “But I trust our justice system.” There is scathing, breathtaking judgment in that response, beginning with the suggestion that only the deaths of the innocent are heartbreaking. How exactly does Pence define innocent? He also seems to be suggesting that Taylor received the kind of justice she deserved, in part, because the judicial system could never ever be wrong.

The candidates were seated during the debate and separated by a plexiglass wall. It was a precaution against the coronavirus that has recently taken root at the White House and within the administration. The risks make one wonder why the vice-presidential debate was even held, in person and inside no less. For all the interaction onstage in Salt Lake City, the debate could have been conducted by video conference to no ill effect. (And Page would have had a handy mute button.) Is it tradition — some unstoppable force that propels people to do as they’ve always done despite the changing circumstances? Is it the fear of being labeled a coward, a false bravery that prevents someone from blinking first and simply saying: No. This is a bad idea.

Pence, the head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, has said he’s tested negative for the coronavirus. He had a note from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attesting to his health. But he hails from an administration that has so dodged and obfuscated on the subject of who tests negative and when that the only convincing piece of evidence might be a note co-signed by Anthony Fauci and the good Lord Jesus.

Nonetheless, the debate went on. Who might have benefited? Was this all in service to the so-called undecided voters? The description suggests that they are truly in a quandary, equally open to either candidate, able to be swayed by just the right turn of phrase. But whenever they are interviewed, they don’t sound that open-minded at all. They sound like people who have made a decision, but their decision makes them squeamish and so they want to wallow in the crystal-clear waters of “undecided” until time runs out and they have to come ashore.

They’re not undecided as much as commitment-phobic. But at the end of 90 minutes, neither Harris nor Pence had offered anything new to seal the relationship. They only reminded voters of what they already knew.

Robin Givhan is The Washington Post’s fashion critic.