In any other election year, the Vice Presidential debate would have been one of the little-noticed events of the campaign season — a significant footnote, but a footnote nonetheless. This year, however, after a chaotic first presidential debate during which President Trump shouted down a stuttering Joe Biden, the Vice Presidential debate understandably took on more significance. This was made all the more noteworthy by the president’s diagnosis with the coronavirus, a diagnosis which jeopardizes the prospects of the next three debates. With that fact in mind, knowing that this may be the one and only time the American people get to hear a serious debate between two competent adults this October, Harris and Pence took the stage and delivered a supremely underwhelming series of well-prepared remarks that neither addressed the questions they were asked by the moderator nor strayed too far into policy so as to reveal that neither one of them really has a substantive platform to run on.
The debate started off, predictably, with a discussion of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. However, for some reason, Harris failed to point out that the President literally caught the virus he ignored over the weekend, thereby falling victim to his own ineptitude while at the same time endangering the security of the nation. In fact, the President’s diagnosis hardly even came up. Why didn’t she press Pence about the timeline of the President’s diagnosis, which is still unclear? Why didn’t she ask Pence if he thought it made sense for Trump to take off his mask upon his return to the White House? Why didn’t she grill Pence regarding his own complicity in allowing the President to control the launch codes to the nation’s nuclear warheads even as he was suffering from low blood oxygen levels and being pumped full of various drugs that can impair one’s judgment? Instead, the topic was relegated to ‘the elephant in the room’ status as the pair lobbed canned statements at each other in a vain attempt to express the anger and indignation that Americans feel right now.
Kamala Harris for her part did score a few points, catching Pence off guard during several segments about his stewardship of the pandemic response and the White House’s failure to prevent the deaths of 210,000 Americans. She deftly explained that foreign policy was about relationships and that Trump and Pence are terrible at maintaining relationships domestically and abroad. But she nevertheless failed to deliver death blows on topics ranging from the historic job loss and economic downturn precipitated by the Trump administration to the clear hypocrisy of Trump’s scandalously low tax payments and simultaneous tax cuts for the rich. She also failed to vigorously defend Biden and the Democratic Party platform on topics ranging from climate change to trade. She wasted time telling Pence to respect her time to speak, which played only to those who are already voting for Biden. But Harris is at her most iconic when she is putting someone in their place, and so that is how she spent her time instead of hitting Pence with attacks that will substantively move the needle for the Biden administration electorally.
Perhaps Harris’ largest failure, however, came in the second half of the show when, for all of her prosecutorial experience in front of juries skewering witnesses, she failed to nail Mike Pence to the wall on his party’s deeply hypocritical stance regarding supreme court nominations. The Trump administration is currently pushing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett through the Senate after having blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland during 2016 because the vacancy opened during an election year. Kamala not only failed to note this blatant double-dealing, she actually managed to lose the interaction overall by taking heat from Pence for the Democrats’ plan to potentially pack the courts if Biden wins. That concession to the Left (an odd moment to start flirting with the Leftwing of the Democratic Party) cost her what should have otherwise been an easy slam dunk for someone of her expertise.
Of course, because this is 2020 and all of politics has been reduced to absurdist comedy and reality TV, the only thing that voters will likely remember from the evening was the fly that landed on Pence’s head and stayed put for a moment as Pence blathered on about racial injustices that his administration actively exacerbates. The fly became an instant sensation online and took over the media conversation despite the major networks’ best efforts to steer the post-debate analysis toward substantive critique. Fly memes spread across the globe almost instantly, and as soon as the debate was over, the Biden campaign launched a fundraising campaign featuring Biden-Harris branded fly swatters. This is politics in 2020, and despite what is at stake in November, the insect will most likely be the only thing anyone remembers about a discussion between two people who could be president someday if their elderly bosses die. By this time next week, if voters can even remember the fly, that will be a feat of incredible recall. It is safe to say, therefore, that the VP debate was largely a wasted opportunity for both candidates. The only one who may have gained anything from the evening’s proceedings was the fly, who should immediately get tested for the coronavirus.