It might seem like an eternity since the last time a woman and a man squared off in a vice-presidential debate, but it was just 12 years ago. Based upon post-game analysis back then, the man won.
Not so much this time.
In 2008, then-Senator Joe Biden--of all people--took the measure of then-Governor Sarah Palin by simply showing himself more qualified to be president. Before this crazy year, their 2008 matchup--with the genders reversed by political party--had certainly loomed as the most anticipated vice-presidential debate in history.
Biden mostly killed Palin with kindness, as Mama Grizzly vainly attempted to distinguish herself from SNL comedian Tiny Fey’s legendary portrayal of her as essentially someone more suited to taking a tour of the White House than living there.
This time, the woman won. Senator Kamala Harris dramatically took the measure of Vice President Mike Pence where it matters most: on optics and presentation. Like it or not--and idealists generally don’t--national debates, especially in a one-on-one format, reduce to style over substance.
The best way to judge a contemporary debate is to consider what it would look like with the sound off. That’s a truism debating back in the television era at least to 1960, when Tricky Dick Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow rendered Senator John F. Kennedy even more youthful, dashing and charismatic than he already was.
In that respect, Harris trounced Pence by oozing decency, calm and warmth while he assumed the position of the First Enabler, an angry white guy apologizing for his excruciatingly angrier boss. Bottom line, Harris was easily the more presidential person on the stage.
It didn’t hurt that Harris affectionately referred to her running mate as “Joe.” Pence stopped a whisker short of using “Dear Leader” when fawning and attempting to recreate history on behalf of President Donald Trump.
Just last week--how long ago it seems--Trump’s cartoonish presentation of a bitter old rich guy yelling “get off our mansion lawn” made former Vice President Joe Biden’s smile light up brighter than Tiki torches at a Nazi rally. And, so it was Wednesday night as Harris kept her cool while Pence was most notable as a parking structure for a now-famous fly.
That would have been awkward even if Pence hadn’t shown up with a lack of energy exacerbated by something resembling a case of pink eye. Suffice it to say it was not a goal of Team Pence to emerge from the proceeding with #CovidEye trending on Twitter.
The second-best way to judge a debate--sorry, again, idealists--is to score it based upon the conduct and verbal mannerisms of the combatants. Here again, Harris just crushed Pence with her unflappability as he persistently exceeded his time and rudely--and male stereotypically--tried to blather over her calm answers.
Pence actually crushed himself. With the Republican ticket desperately needing to whittle its cavernous deficit among women--or “suburban housewives" as Trump likes to say--it is an impossible to imagine an approach more offensive to women. I’m a guy, for crying out loud, and even I can see that.
Harris’ brilliant strategy was not to take the bait. Instead of showing resentment to the persistent rudeness by Pence or appealing to moderator Susan Page (who apparently took frequent coffee breaks during the proceedings), the seasoned senator just smiled sadly while taking in the hoisting of Pence on his own petard.
Finally, as to substance, one could argue that Harris won here as well, but mainly because the facts are on her side. To be fair, if millions of Americans went to bed every night freaked and fearful about fracking, it would have been a pretty good night for Pence. But seeing as how COVID-19 hasn’t gone away like magic as COVID-45 repeatedly promised, Harris prosecutorial annihilation of the administration’s massive public-health failure was surgical.
To be fair, this debate was never going to be about changing many minds: The cake is baked politically with something north of 90 percent of the electorate. It is become increasingly clear that Trump’s only path to victory is through cheating with the help of an army of lawyers tasked to punt an adverse decision to Republican state legislators, Republican judges or both.
In normal times, Pence’s monstrous refusal to promise acceptance of an orderly transition of power--echoing the treasonous posture of Chairman Mao ZeTrump--should have been the biggest headline of the night. It wasn’t.
Once again, it’s a sad commentary of our times that they might as well have staged the debate without sound. But Harris still would have trounced Pence.