Pence Was Pretty Good. Harris Was Better.

And the presidential debate commission needs to get control.

It was historic. The vice presidential debate was the first between an African-American woman and a Vulcan, and an albino Vulcan at that.

To be fair, Mike Pence’s annoyance through the evening was very un-Spock. That irritability didn’t yield what needed to be a great performance to alter the election trajectory. For her part, Kamala Harris conducted herself with poise, clarity, and deft evasion. When she said in her first answer, “Here are the facts,” the former prosecutor offered the kind of clarity that neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden displayed in their scrum. Many precise hand gestures and competent pivots to what she wanted to discuss, like Amy Coney Barrett and the Affordable Care Act instead of Amy Coney Barrett and abortion.

Like the veep’s office itself, vice presidential debates are second-tier, ill-defined, and kind of an appendage. They’re not the “warm bucket of piss” in the famed phrase of Franklin Roosevelt’’s first running mate, John Nance Garner, about the office he won. But they’re lesser, not election turning. Bob Dole’s jab about “Democrat Wars” triggered a backlash in 1976. (Yes, sounds quaint now.) But it didn’t end Gerald Ford’s campaign. And Dan Quayle not only lost the you’re-no-Jack-Kennedy exchange but was lame enough to have compared himself to JFK. That cringe-worthy moment didn’t doom George H.W. Bush’s march to the White House. 

There were no screw-ups on that order at the Pence-Harris debate and nothing that’ll decisively change the election. If anything, many Republicans and Democrats must be wondering why Harris and Pence aren’t topping their ticket of choice.

For Harris, one challenge was to seem ready to step into the Oval Office and not seem like the radical GOP caricature. She did well on both counts, defending fracking like Pennsylvania pol instead of a Brentwood one. Her prosecutor’s brief against Trump’s cozying up to dictators was more elegant and practical than Pence’s quip that Biden has been a “cheerleader of Communist China,”  and it made her look stronger.

Pence’s charge was to change the weather, which is a lot to ask of one Hoosier. He had to upend the dynamics of this race, and he couldn’t do it. No veep really could. His brief was much better than Trump’s Catskills cavalcade of insults in the first debate. Yes, his argument against Biden/Harris had its moments. The two Democrats haven’t been consistent on fracking. Biden and Harris have a court-packing answer–It depends!– but it’s not a satisfying one. 

By contrast, Pence’s strengths as a former radio broadcaster, congressman, and governor helped him a lot in his 2016 debate with Sen. Tim Kaine. That face-off reminded me of Dick Cheney, who took apart the supposedly silver-tongued John Edwards in the2004 vice presidential debate and dispatched Joe Lieberman in 2000. Sometimes dull and pissy is winning.

But this time, it just didn’t play as well for Pence. Maybe it was the weird fly on his head, the tired reddish hampster eyes, or the duty to defend the indefensible. Pence is unctuous, where Cheney is grouchy. I once asked a very stiff southern congressman what they thought of Pence. “He’s a stiff,” the stiff congressman replied. 

Pence’s capacity to keep Trump from never having blown up at him shows a lot of obsequiousness. (A “poodle.” said George F. Will.) But Pence has a certain EQ (Emotional Intelligence), an ability to read the room, that his tightly-wound demeanor might not suggest. This time he showed some excellent EQ–the tip of the hat to the friendship between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, acknowledging Harris’s “historic” candidacy, and thanks for their good wishes for Trump during his illness. That bit of (artificial) bonhomie goes a long way, and Harris probably should have tossed some bouquet to his beautiful family.

But Pence’s attempts to administer the stiletto never really hit an organ. Calling Biden “a cheerleader for Communist China,” was lame. Panders to fracking, dairy farming in the upper Midwest, and Catholics were too pandering. Sometimes the targeted appeal lands with precision, but these were more napalm. Pence’s efforts to imply that Biden/Harris would hike middle-class taxes weren’t artfully done as they could have been. And he left some money on the table: Harris never used the phrase Green New Deal. Pence could have hit her on that sidestep.

Many MSM reporters applauded Susan Page afterward, befitting her likeability and talents as a journalist and Washington fixture. (I like her, too.) But c’mon. Her questions were probing, and her delivery was appealing, maybe even soothing. But she allowed Pence to violate the rules every single time. Even after the Chris Wallace debacle, Page and, by extension, the presidential debate commission, couldn’t find a way to take control even knowing bullies loomed. It was an abdication of responsibility when Trump was allowed to filibuster, and the same was true of Pence’s Trumpism with a human face. The White Man hogged time like The Orange Man. 

Personal confession: I spent some time with Mike Pence in 2005 when he tried to push through a shield law to protect journalists’ confidential sources. His background as a radio host and perhaps ambitions for higher office made him a friend to the press. (Again, a quaint memory.) Since I was involved in a court case about confidential sources, he and I both testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the bill. The press-admiring Pence is gone, of course. But I confess to having a certain admiration for him at the time. Way to the right, yes, but with a certain go-his-own-way quality. He’s much-derided. (See my lead.) But someone who was raised an Irish-Catholic Democrat and has become an Evangelical Republican and has risen from a middle-class background to the vice presidency is a formidable and very American figure. 

Harris’s journey to the debate stage is, of course, much more captivating and impressive. She beat a swift path from Oakland to Howard University and back to the Bay Area, where her rise was brisk in a region not hurting for aspiring politicians. In the Democratic Primary debates, she landed a blow on Biden with that school busing riposte. But she wasn’t ready for Day Two when Biden pushed back. She never had a great moment save for that. (Tulsi Gabbard drew blood when she went after Harris on drug crimes.) Harris showed tremendous growth since the Spring. Tonight she seemed more assured, presidential, adroit–and, yes, evasive. Harris didn’t need to be that good. She was.

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Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is Guest Political Editor at the Washington Monthly. He is also contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter having covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.