“Mr vice president. I am speaking!” Kamala Harris objected to Mike Pence. And then a fly landed on his head. Those were the most exciting things that happened during a very standard American vice presidential debate in which Kamala Harris, the Democratic Party nominee for vice president of the United States went head to head with US VP Mike Pence. The big news appeared to be that Pence failed to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, but that seems already baked into the calculus given Trump’s repeated allusions to a coming fight.
Harris’s charge that the Trump-Pence administration had produced "the greatest failure of a presidential administration in the history of our country”, was also a moment of potential impact that failed to gain momentum.
Yet, a tectonic shift took place under the surface—a black woman of Indian descent moved a subtle line of perception that left no doubt that she could be every bit as effective than the white-establishment across the plexiglass from her. In the course of 90 minutes, she normalised the thought that a woman who looked like her — Indian features, black skin — could very well be the woman in charge of the United States of America. She went toe-to-toe on every subject, thoughtfully, deliberately, with a soft smile on her face.
The night was notable for the absence of the emotionally abusive tone of the Trump/Biden debate. Not that Pence did not try to mansplain and overrun the debate by abusing his allotted time and ignoring the attempts of the female moderator to keep control even as he interrupted Harris, whose demeanor was firm but decidedly ladylike. “Mr vice president. I am speaking”, instead of Biden’s “Would you shut up, man?” last week.
In the speech in her hometown of Oakland, California, when she launched her presidential run, Harris put her courtroom experience before the cameras, creating moments where exaggerated facial expressions help make a point. In last night’s debate, with her camera on near-permanent close-up, her smile went to the edge of appearing contemptuous without crossing the line, a difficult thing for a woman, and a black woman especially, to do without falling into the stereotypes that can turn her into a caricature that ignores her substance.
The Democratic Twittersphere loved what they saw as a superior smirk from Harris, but she kept those short enough, perhaps aware that it would not play well with the more conservative opposition.
“I thought about my mother who came to the United States at the age of 19,” she said in her first turn, echoing her nomination acceptance speech where she talked about her mother’s values and Indian heritage.
While Pence mostly ignored the questions by the female moderator, Harris largely tried to answer the questions, even in face of interruptions and depressed, delayed, hypersensitive flare-ups by the vice president as he strived to defend Trump at every turn. Those were intended to get her off her game, but Harris was not rattled. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can then have a conversation.”
Pence was focused on pushing the idea that Harris is a really, really liberal senator while Harris referred to Biden as “Joe” at every turn, effectively reinforcing Biden’s folksy style and common-man persona. Both nominees did precisely what they were supposed to do.
On substantive topics, Harris masterfully answered questions. One was on whether a Biden administration would pack the Supreme Court. Harris confidently stopped a Pence interruption and schooled him on the history of packing the courts, beginning with an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, perhaps a subtle message given that, under his administration, Republicans added a 10th member to the Supreme Court, a number that the US Congress shrunk 3 years later. Perhaps a smart way of telegraphing intentions given that the packing the court narrative may also be a big motivating factor for the Democrats.
Democratic expectations that Harris would put Pence on trial for his questionable stewardship as chair of White House Coronavirus Task Force went largely unrealised, although she did forcefully point out during the debate that Pence and Trump withheld crucial information the public in January. This is known only today due to the work of Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, the investigative reporter who brought down the Nixon administration.
As the female moderator appeared more lenient in allowing Pence to overrun his opponent and continue to talk beyond his allotted time, and as Harris mostly abided by the time limits, the kind of follow-ups that would have created more impactful moments, perhaps because of the format adjustments in response to the unbounded, out-of-control presidential debate.
Undecided voter social postings characterised Pence as “polished, stubborn, insincere, and gaslighter” among others; characterisations of Harris fell into the categories of “just, right, competent, serious, and emotional”. On those terms alone, advantage Harris.
Her emotionalism may have been just the right dose at the right time, however, as she invoked the story and sympathy for the family of Kayla Mueller, the American human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker who was tortured and raped while being held hostage by ISIS and eventually killed.
Harris was quite effective in looking at the camera, talking to the audience, and scoring points, most notably in turning COVID topics into a defence of Obamacare. In one moment, she looked straight at the audience and said, “If you have a pre-existing condition—heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer—they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”
Building on the momentum of the Black Lives Matter, Harris spoke about the injustice to Breonna Taylor in a manner that connected the emotions of those watching and live-tweeting the debate. While Pence had a response that did not falter, his more robotic manner, while unlikely to lose any voters, was also unlikely to gain votes for his side.
On the whole, that the debate was notable for its civility may in itself be a winning point, as it provided a refreshing break from the constant chaotic, political, and psychological confrontations that have become the hallmark of Trump’s interactions.
In the end, there were no bolts of lightning, no knock-out moments, no memorable lines. Harris and Pence stayed well within their campaign’s strategic framework for this debate, neither becoming a liability. Both came across at least as equally competent and focussed, perhaps differing in how much people can trust them. But Harris had a double job: Prove herself and defend her running mate.
Those who watched the debate see her as having accomplished both jobs. In a CNN-SSRS post-debate poll of voters who watched the debate, 69 per cent of women felt that Harris had won the debate, and by a margin of 48 per cent to 46 per cent, men chose Harris as the winner. Now, if we could just be the fly on Pence’s head and see how that plays with the Republican ticket.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect those of THE WEEK