Vice presidential debates don’t generally matter too much, but then again, this is 2020. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are the two oldest presidential candidates in history (74 and 77 respectively), and in the not-as-unlikely-as-usual case that the president dies or is incapacitated sometime in the next four years, either Mike Pence or Kamala Harris would take his spot. That, plus the trainwreck of a debate that happened a week prior, put a larger spotlight than usual on this debate.
Fortunately, this was no repeat of the week before. There were interruptions, sure, but nothing close to the chaos of the first debate. It was about as normal a debate as could be expected in 2020. The candidates were mostly civil to each other, some questions were answered, some questions were dodged, and the debate largely came and went without too much controversy.
The debate started on what is likely the most important issue this election: COVID-19. The pandemic is a no-win area for Trump and Pence, and Harris made sure to capitalize on that. She criticized Trump and Pence for downplaying the virus after they were informed of its severity back in January and claimed the American people had been done a great disservice by the president’s holding back of information. When asked if she would take a vaccine if it was released under the Trump administration, she stated “If the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it.” Pence played it fairly safe with his defense, talking up the President’s response to the virus, and praising the American people’s resolve during the pandemic: “When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.” While nothing about the pandemic is likely to help Trump, Pence did about as well as he could have with the topic, responding to Harris’s easy shots with fairly generic praise of the president and the people.
The same can be said for the rest of the debate. Harris was on the attack almost constantly, bringing up a plethora of strikes against Trump’s record, while Pence played defense with fairly standard responses. Harris claimed that Trump’s tax cuts unfairly favored the rich, and Pence responded by claiming Biden will raise taxes and praising the (pre-COVID) growth of the economy. Harris brought up the reports that Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2017, and Pence claimed Trump has paid millions, then quickly diverted the conversation to jobs. Harris brought up Trump’s disparaging comments towards the armed forces, and Pence responded by praising their service. There were a few exceptions, of course. Pence firmly stood against anti-racism protesters, saying “This presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, that America is systemically racist (…) is a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement,” and he insisted that Biden would ban fracking, which Harris denied. However, on most issues, Harris made all the shots she needed to, and Pence played it safe with his responses.
So Harris was in a good position throughout this debate, but what really secured this as a win for her was her demeanor. Throughout the debate, Harris appeared far more lively and energetic than Pence, often having a large smile on her face while Pence was speaking that implied “It’s funny how wrong you are.” Three times during the debate, when Pence interrupted her, she responded with an assertive “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking.” When the moderator accidentally called her by her first name, she responded with a playful tone, “It’s fine, I’m Kamala.” Harris gave off the impression that she was cool and likable, yet assertive, which stood in stark contrast to Pence’s colder and more politician-like aura. There is often a double-standard for women in politics, where being too authoritative risks being seen as “nasty” or “unlikeable,” so Harris’s approach was not just helpful, but necessary. Harris’s demeanor was her biggest asset in this debate, and likely the most important factor of the night.
Oh, and the fly helped.
Yes, near the end of the debate, a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head, perfectly contrasted against his snow-white hair, and stayed there for a solid two minutes before finally flying off. He didn’t seem to notice, and neither Harris nor the moderator brought it up, but after the debate, it was seemingly the only thing people were talking about. The fly blew up on social media, memes about it were everywhere, and it was the centerpiece of SNL’s debate skit. While it’s undeniably funny, and it definitely doesn’t help Pence’s image, it seems unlikely that it’ll affect the race too much. Nobody is going to think “I was going to vote for Trump, but after that fly landed on Pence’s head, I don’t think I will.” Even so, the fly was definitely many people’s takeaway from the debate, more so than the issues discussed. However, considering the state of American politics over the last half-decade, the fact that the most memorable thing to come out of this debate was a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head is a win for us all.