It is a fascinating symptom of the age: We were all told by the media (and even by me, guilty as charged) to prepare for World War Eleventy when Mike Pence and Kamala Harris met for the only vice presidential debate of the campaign. She’s gonna, he’s gonna, oh it’s gonna be, and we all leaned into our televisions and saw… a debate.
Not a gross national embarrassment like we saw last week, not a herd of mooing cattle desperately trying to squeeze three extra seconds out of 13 overstuffed events during the primaries. Last night was two people, one moderator, and the general tone of voice expected of an NPR broadcaster. Did it get rude and chippy at times? Of course; Mike Pence was there, along with a fly who picked up nearly a million Twitter followers overnight. The fly was less annoying than the vice president by yards.
The VP debate was weird, to be sure, especially in the absence of the anticipated fireworks. Pence told all of the same lies Donald Trump tells — about Biden, about COVID vs. the flu, about China, the environment, abortion, jobs, Russia and the impeachment, health care, taxes, abortion — but did so in complete sentences that, strangely enough, made them even less palatable. Coherent dishonesty can be far more disturbing than incoherent dishonesty.
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Yes, there was plenty to be sickened by, especially on the fly’s side of the occasion. While Pence did not garble and howl over his opponent and the moderator, he pointedly refused to adhere to the agreed-upon time format of the event. By the end of the night, Harris had thrown so much shade at Pence’s drearily unstoppable drone that she could have been a window treatments associate at Bed Bath & Beyond. Nothing stopped him; moderator Susan Page was a sandcastle wall against the slow onrushing of the evening tide.
From a progressive perspective, last night presented ample opportunities for both optimism and disappointment. Kamala Harris, the groundbreaking first Black/South Asian VP nominee in U.S. history, was as prepared as any national debate participant could ever hope to be. Yet many left-leaning viewers were disappointed by her references to “good cops,” her touting of body cameras as a real solution to police-perpetrated violence, and her ardent defense of the environmentally ruinous practice of fracking in the face of Pence’s accusations that she and Joe Biden were insufficiently in thrall to fossil fuels.
Harris’s robust defense of fracking comes as little surprise, alas. Despite her own past opposition to fracking, the practice has been favored among the corporate establishment wing of the Democratic Party for years; recall Hillary Clinton peddling the practice internationally from her post as secretary of state. The center-right Biden/Harris ticket may as well have sprung whole from the forehead of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), like Zeus giving life to Athena but way less cool. This ticket is the DNC, and the DNC digs fracking.
There are also the swing-state politics to consider. Any number of election day scenarios have Pennsylvania being the ballgame — win there and it’s in the bag — and fracking is a popular jobs program in the swath of that state between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Pence did not accidentally accuse Biden and Harris of seeking to end fracking; Trump is behind in Pennsylvania by anything from four to 13 points, depending on the poll, and his path to victory is nearly invisible without a win in that state. Harris rising in defense of fracking last night was, morosely, a smart electoral tactic.
Yet, as ever, Pence played the role of his boss and dug in on the most alarming elements of this administration. His performance, measured though it was, reminded voters that a tidal wave of fascism threatens to wipe out democracy as we understand it. When pointedly asked if Trump will accept the outcome of the election, He Who Walks Behind the Rows did an artless pirouette and spun the question, unanswered, out into the COVID night. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Despite polls that indicate Harris won the evening, and that Biden leads Trump by overwhelming margins, Pence’s maneuver highlights the fact that the administration may attempt to simply ignore the election results. Even a clear majority could be deemed “fake news” in the world of Trump. No amount of calm debating could obscure this glaring concern.
And all of a sudden, last night’s event may have been the final debate of the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s COVID infection has made his participation in any in-person event a potentially lethal affair for all involved. The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday that the next Trump-Biden debate will be done remotely, also known as responsibly. Trump immediately dismissed this edict and declared he will not participate.
Thank God for small favors. If last night was it, the final round-up, the capstone event to the most ridiculous presidential election campaign in memory, well, at least it was goddamn quiet.
However, we must not pretend that quiet equals innocuous. Pence’s sidestep of the debate’s most important question was deeply disquieting, again.