LAST NIGHT’S DEBATE
by Ron Faucheux
The dictionary defines dodgeball as a “sport in which players on two teams try to throw balls and hit opponents, while avoiding being hit themselves.”
Last night’s encounter was less a debate than a dodgeball game. Instead of throwing no-sting rubber balls, the players threw no-surprise sound bites.
The rules of the debate and the moderator’s management allowed both candidates to dodge question after question––and both candidates availed themselves of the opportunity. Mike Pence smoothly pivoted off of every tough question and did it shamelessly, without challenge. Kamala Harris did her share of pivoting as well. Her avoidance of the question on packing the Supreme Court was painfully apparent.
Pence ran over time on most answers, and admittedly the time limits were too short for serious discussion. But the vice-president pushed that annoying gambit too far. As one observer cracked, “The fly followed the two-minute rule better than Pence.”
While this debate was more normal and civil than the presidential fiasco last week, the lack of follow-up questions unfortunately destroyed its civic purpose.
Harris-the-tough-prosecutor didn’t show up. She played it cautiously––which is what frontrunners do. Keep in mind, her goal was to do nothing that would disrupt her ticket’s current momentum. She achieved that objective. Her more casual demeanor probably appealed to many voters, especially in contrast to Pence’s politely composed, but tauter, approach.
CNN’s instant poll showed that women, much more than men, sided with Harris.
Pence had two jobs in the debate: Do no harm (which is a standard requirement for vice-presidential candidates) and push the reset button on the turmoil of this past week. While he may have accomplished his first goal, any progress on the second will only last until the next tweet storm from the White House.
Harris did best on healthcare and the coronavirus issue, but even there missed opportunities. For example, she failed to go after Pence’s remarks on the administration’s suspending “all” travel from China in the early days of the pandemic; it was a chance to rip apart the Trump-Pence coronavirus defense, but the former San Francisco DA passed.
Polls show the economy is Trump’s strongest issue and Pence did best advancing it. Harris used questionable “facts” to challenge Pence’s economic arguments, and Pence came back with his own questionable “facts” as he defended the president and attacked Joe Biden. Pence’s strongest policy moment was the way he baited Harris into a trap on tax cuts, exposing contradictions in Democratic proposals.
Personally, both candidates held up well. Politically, Democrats will be happy with Harris, and Republicans will be pleased with Pence. Support will be affirmed, not changed.
Strategically, this was the second opportunity for the Republican ticket to use a well-watched public forum to change the dynamics of the election in their favor, and it was the second time they didn’t do it.