The first and only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election could’ve been a taste of normalcy — a now-exotic blandness in a brain-melting, sanity-bombarding year. After all, Mike Pence’s main political asset, other than the network of evangelicals that he helped usher into Trump’s base, is supposed to be the velvet-voiced calm and XY-chromosomed “reasonability” that he exudes while lying to the American people with one side of his mouth and selling them on extremist ideas with the other. And Kamala Harris, whose self-assured adaptability kept her from standing out as a candidate in the ideologically divided Democratic primaries last year, could find a balance between “prosecutor tough” and “traditionally likable female” in her sleep.
And then, because it’s 2020, a fly landed on Pence’s head. And stayed there for two whole minutes. Expect the David Cronenberg jokes to last well into tomorrow.
But well before The Fly became the meme moment an hour into the debate, all semblance of normalcy had already been defenestrated. From the very start of the 90-minute event at the University of Utah, Pence did his version of Trump’s aggro-gorilla performance in the first presidential debate last week, talking over or interrupting his debate opponent and generally steamrolling moderator Susan Page of USA Today, whose sharp questions he reliably ignored. (Page, for her part, let herself be steamrolled.)
It was, in other words, an uncomfortable spectacle of unconscious gendered dynamics playing out in real time. It’s safe to say that Harris handily “won” the debate, though I’m not sure it counts as winning when the opponent is a professional toady. When he wasn’t mimicking Trump’s tendency to project his own flaws onto others (“You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own set of facts,” he scolded Harris), Pence appeared obnoxious, condescending and not altogether present in the moment as he ran roughshod over the two women on the stage and kept addressing issues the moderator had moved on from. If Trump did his best to get his picture under the definition of “alpha male” in the dictionary last week, Pence’s portrait might be found under “mansplainer.”
Harris opted for a two-pronged response, sometimes requesting parity from the moderator (“I would like equal time”), sometimes just letting Pence look like a sexist jerk by talking over her for the umpteenth time. She kept many of her answers (though hardly all) to the allotted time, a deference to the debate parameters that ended up working in her favor, because her talking points actually landed, instead of getting lost in an endless fog of blather and bloviation.
But Harris’ careful attention to the time limits was probably necessitated by the American public’s lingering distrust of unruly women. Author Glennon Doyle accurately summed up the situation in a viral tweet: “This debate is evidence that white men do not have to follow the rules. While women hav[e] to win by following them.” Anyone who found the rictus smile that Hillary Clinton kept plastered on her face during her 2016 debates against Trump to be damning implicit commentary on the state of female likability probably found much to celebrate, as I did, in Harris’ looks of open skepticism, disbelief and irritation as Pence spoke. But it’s also entirely possible that some viewers were put off by Harris not receiving every one of Pence’s lies and insults with a forgiving, maternal grin.
But what about the policies? The plans to control the spread of the coronavirus, provide relief to millions of financially strapped Americans and bring a measure of justice to the many inequities of our current system? So far I’ve focused largely on the optics of the debate — and the culture war in which it’s the latest front — because there was precious little information on how the Biden or Trump administration would make America … something again. (Also because I’m not a policy wonk.) Harris spent most of her time landing blows on Trump’s abysmal handling of the epidemic (and other issues), while Pence swiped ineffectually at Biden’s VP record during the Obama years … which Harris wasn’t there for.
So the vice presidential debates ended up being yet another artifact of these hopelessly polarized times, with The Fly adding an appropriately surreal touch to a stupefyingly surreal four years. There was brazen hypocrisy and risible outrage, with Pence gallingly telling Harris, “Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” as if the White House hasn’t done exactly that for months, at the cost of 210,000 lives and counting. There was a lot of blame, and few solutions. There was a woman who had to ask, repeatedly, to talk without interruption (and who’d be met with predictable, “You go, girls!” from the left and eye rolls on the right). There wasn’t anywhere near as much sympathy and consideration for all those who desperately need the government to step in right now.
And then there was the now-routine shaming of the current state of our politics via a closing question posed by an earnest child, who asked why the news was so rancorous today — as if 2020 could inspire anything other than anger, despair and indelible intimations of decay.