Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Veep Debate

Historically, voters rarely, if ever, base their vote on the vice-presidential candidate. Hence the vice-presidential debate does not generally rate the highest interest. Classically at such a debate, the expectation of a new veep nominee is to show that he (in this case, she) can look and act presidential, which she did. Both candidates established their serious standing to be possible presidential contenders in the future.

Of course, one unusual reason for watching the veep debate last night was simply to see something like a normal discussion of the big issues confronting our country, unlike the sorry spectacle put on by President Trump last week. Obviously that was a very low bar to meet. As always, the candidates evaded the issues and avoided answering the exact questions, which is one of the reasons I increasingly see so little value in such debates. That said, this exercise was for the most part happily dull - unlike last week's scandalously high-spirited performance. Even so, although no voices were raised, Vice President Pence set a bad tone by repeatedly taking more time than he was entitled and ignoring the moderator, perhaps aware his boss was watching and would want to see that. In that sense, Pence, with his persistent talking overtime and not really answering the questions, was a milder version of Trump's bad manners.

Moderator Susan Page struggled all evening with his continued contempt for following the rules. She began by asking about what is obviously the pre-eminent moral and political issue facing our country - the coronavirus pandemic. Unsurprisingly, Vice President Pence provided evasive answers tainted by Trumpist fantasies and the remnants of a discredited conservative ideology completely inept when it comes to public health or any public good. Basically what we saw all evening was Pence pretending, by talking calmly, that this is a normal presidency and the issues are normal issues, when what the pandemic in particular has highlighted is how that is simply not the case.

On the second set of questions concerning the role of the veep and presidential health and possible disability, the candidates ignored the questions even more blatantly, although Harris did at least express a commitment to transparency, something which has been notably absent in this present instance of presidential illness.

On the economy, Harris highlighted the fundamental differences between the two sets of candidates - measuring the health of the economy by the strength of workers and families vs. measuring it by its benefits for the rich. Pence, perhaps to please his boss, interrupted Harris, while unsurprisingly falling back on the old Republican talking point about taxes and the Trump tax cuts.

By the time, they got to the environment and climate change, anyone watching probably could have recited their predictable answers in advance. The problem, of course, when the debate is increasingly between assertions of alternative sets of facts, how does the audience adjudicate between such completely incommensurate fact claims?

Harris seemed very strong when talking about foreign policy, using the helpful imagery of relationships. Pence suffered from a compulsive need to show that everything the Obama Administration did was a total disaster, which got in the way of making any kind of positive case for his own administration. The question for today, as Ronald Reagan famously said, is whether we are better off now. Making tedious comparisons with a previous administration does not speak to today. It was almost as if he preferred not to have to talk that much about the present.

It might have been too much to have expected Harris to explain the merit of increasing the number of seats on the Supreme Court - what Pence derisively dismissed as "court packing ' which sounds a lot scarier than it is. Sooner or later, however, Democrats need to explain why the concept is not so scary at all. That said, Harris did a good job of highlighting how the Republicans have in their own fashion been "packing" the courts with their own ideologues.

On the crucial question of a fair election and a peaceful transition of power, instead of answering Pence repeated Trump's complaints about the 2016 election and subsequent events. Again, one wonders if he felt that he had to say that to please his boss.

In general, the discussion improved over time. But the talking past the time limit continued to the consternation of the hapless moderator - and the growing boredom of the audience. Gradually Harris became more assertive about claiming time for herself. It will be interesting to see how that is received - a woman asserting for herself the traditional male prerogative Pence practiced so effortlessly of interrupting and talking over others.

Harris did a good job of highlighting the threat to so many people's health care posed by this administration and their Supreme Court nominee. She might have served her cause even better by talking about it even more every chance she could.  After the issue of the president himself and the survival of constitutional democracy, health care is the Democrats' strongest issue.

When all is said and done, it is unlikely that many minds - or votes - were changed, or that we will even be talking much about this event much beyond today.

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