In 2020, with two presidential candidates who are so old, the steadiness of the running mate matters all the more. And in conveying temperament, I think Harris helped herself in a way that might matter electorally, while Pence did himself and his running mate harm.
The axis for both displays was Pence’s version of Donald Trump’s rampaging disregard for debate “rules” during the cage-match Trump-Biden spectacle one week ago. That time, Trump yelled and grimaced; this time, Pence was soft-spoken and had an undertaker’s smile. But Pence was nearly as insistent in interrupting Harris, and he was at least as dismissive of the rules that Susan Page, as moderator, was supposed to apply. If anything, Page ended up even less in control of this debate than Chris Wallace had been a week ago. In virtually every round of discussion, Mike Pence reached the end of his allotted time—and just kept on talking, for an average of 20 to 30 seconds more. (Which is a lot, when the supposed limit is two minutes.) Page would futilely say “Thank you” and “Mr. Vice President” as he filibustered, but Pence went on as long as he wanted and made clear who was in control. The main external force that stopped Pence was Harris herself, who occasionally turned to face him as he interrupted her and gave him a steely, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”
What was the result of this dynamic? You had one woman, Harris, who was mainly following the agreed-on rules; one man, Pence, who was mainly ignoring them; and another woman, Page, who seemed less and less able to rein Pence in. Yes, policy details—Obamacare, the trade war, criminal justice—occupy most of the transcript of the debate. But the underlying novelistic or dramatic cast of characters is what leaves an impression after most debates. (The pallid, sweaty Nixon versus the glowing, suntanned JFK in 1960; the taut, harried Jimmy Carter versus the at-ease Ronald Reagan in 1980; the weary George H. W. Bush glancing nervously at his watch in a town-hall session in 1992 versus the buoyant Bill Clinton.) And I think the residual effect will help Harris (and Biden), and hurt Pence (and Trump), in two ways.
The question facing Harris going into the debate was a version of the question faced by the new contenders in these three previous debates: John Kennedy going into his debates with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan going into his debate (there was just one) with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton going into his debates with Bush. The question was: Are they up to it? John Kennedy was young and relatively unknown; Reagan was famous but viewed by many as a kook; Clinton had won office only in Arkansas. How would each of them do when matched up with an incumbent vice president (Nixon) or president (Carter, Bush)? In each case, they did fine—and in Reagan’s case, the polls moved from indicating a fairly tight race to predicting a landslide win after the debate. Political scientists, don’t worry; I’m not saying that the 1980 “There you go again!” debate caused Reagan’s win. But it felt at the time, and still feels to me now, as if Reagan’s easy bearing in that debate allowed people who had wondered about him to think: He’s up to it; he’s okay.