Where Harris Succeeded and Pence Failed

Both candidates needed to convince voters they possess the right temperament for the job. Only one pulled it off.

A series of Vice President Mike Pence's and Senator Kamala Harris's facial expressions during Wednesday night's debate
Robyn Beck / Getty / The Atlantic

Will this latest debate make a measurable difference in the outcome of the election? Probably not; vice-presidential debates rarely do. But something significant may have happened last night, and it involves what usually turns out to matter, if anything does, from televised debates. Namely, the parts of their personalities and identities each candidate purposefully or unintentionally conveyed.

If vice-presidential debates are remembered at all, it’s usually for stage-business drama or rhetorical zingers. The most famous case is Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” dressing-down of Dan Quayle in 1988. But that line of Bentsen’s, which lastingly affected Quayle’s reputation, didn’t dent the vote share for the Republican ticket that year. (Quayle and George H. W. Bush won in an Electoral College landslide, 426 votes to 111.) The similarly instant-classic moment from last night’s debate was when a black housefly camped on the snow-white hair of an unaware Mike Pence for two full minutes. Depending on how the election turns out, this will eventually be seen as a minor embarrassment, comparable to toilet paper on your shoe (if Pence and Donald Trump should win), or on the contrary as an overobvious portent (if they lose), without itself making either outcome more likely.

When rhetoricians go back to study the transcript, I think they’ll find a number of carefully prepared and effective lines. To me, the debate-prep work that had gone into crafting responses was easier to notice from Kamala Harris than from Pence. This was partly because Harris herself is a fresher and less familiar figure on the national scene; partly because Pence’s answers were mostly versions of what we’ve heard so often in Trump rally speeches; but mainly because Harris at least began most of her answers with a response to the question that had been asked. By contrast, Pence frequently brushed aside the question and talked about whatever he liked.

After the moderator, Susan Page, said she wanted to shift the topic to a vice president’s responsibilities, during an election in which the presidential candidates are the oldest in U.S. history, Pence said he preferred to talk instead about the timetable for a vaccine—and did just that. Neither in that case nor in any other did Page reel him back or follow up to say, “Mr. Vice President, the question was …” When Page asked Pence a question about climate change and he responded, as Trump does, with an answer about “clean air and water,” she did not say, “Sir, I am asking about climate change.” Page’s list of prepared questions was overall very good, but she did not adjust her approach when Pence repeatedly ignored them. If you’d like to see how it looks when a moderator does adjust and insists on getting answers, check out how Ted Simons of Arizona PBS handled himself in this week’s Arizona Senate debate.

With the first words of her first response, Harris presented what was essentially a prosecutor’s opening argument about mismanagement of the pandemic. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she began, looking not at Page or Pence but directly at the camera. Hundreds of thousands of people dead; millions infected; one in five American businesses closed; “frontline workers treated like sacrificial workers … They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you.”

She made her case on many other fronts, including in a set piece on why in 1864 “Honest Abe” Lincoln waited until after an election to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. Pence had his own responses, again mainly familiar from Trump’s speeches. For now I am going to skip past all those specifics, because if past vice-presidential debates are any guide, policy details from the running mate don’t change many voters’ minds.

What has historically mattered, when vice-presidential candidates present themselves, is temperament. Voters want to know what kind of person they’re dealing with; whether he or she would be ready if called upon; what it says about the presidential nominee that he or she chose this running mate. Back in 2000, it was taken as a “reassuring” sign that the youngish George W. Bush, inexperienced outside Texas, was running with the well-traveled Dick Cheney. (It was a long time ago.) Eight years later, it was a worrisome sign about John McCain that he rolled the dice by choosing Sarah Palin.

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.

I believe that Kamala Harris’s bearing, in a head-to-head meeting with a sitting vice president, may have a similar effect for her. Of course her temperamental task was vastly more complicated than Kennedy’s, Reagan’s, or Clinton’s. As a woman, she had to walk the inch-wide line that separates being submissive from being harsh. A retort that would be tough from a male politician could be—kiss of misogynist death—shrill from her. For a Black woman, the path that is strong but not angry is narrower still. But Harris has had a lifetime’s practice with such navigation, which she put to use.

My guess is that her knowledgeable, unflustered, controlled-but-forceful bearing will not convert many votes to her camp. Most people who will vote Biden-Harris after the debate had long ago decided to do so. The same is true for most of those who will vote Trump-Pence. But I think that, as with Kennedy and with Reagan, her performance may have reassured people who were already considering her. She’s up to it; she knows the terrain; she’s okay. If they were “undecided” mainly about taking the trouble to vote, they’ll be less motivated to vote against her, or more willing to give her a try. I have no idea of the scale of this potential effect, but its direction seems clear—at least to me, as I think back on these preceding They’re up to it, they’re okay debates

As for Pence, the likely effect is simpler and clearer. Most American voters are women; according to polls, the Trump-Pence ticket is in trouble mainly because the pair have such an enormous deficit among female voters. For 90 minutes on Wednesday evening, viewers saw a smug silver-haired man interrupting, talking over, and hogging airtime from one professional woman, and ignoring the “please, sir” requests for decorum from another. To have any hope of winning the election, Pence and Trump had to gain rather than lose female support through this debate. I’ve learned that anything can happen. But it seemed to me, as another silver-haired man, that Pence’s faux-polite bombast would have just the opposite effect.

The other reckoning from this debate is for the Commission on Presidential Debates itself. Twice in two weeks, it has sent out moderators who were either unwilling or unable to enforce the rules under which discussion was supposed to proceed. Because Mike Pence is a more normal person than Donald Trump, the results in the second debate were less disastrous than in the first. But because Kamala Harris is in a more complicated situation than Joe Biden, the consequences were even less fair for her. (Biden could call Trump a “clown” and tell him to “shut up,” and get praised as being “tough” and “spirited.” If Harris had taken the bait from Pence and gone further than I’m speaking, she would be “angry” and “shrill.”)

Rules that aren’t enforced might as well not exist. Biden and Harris both bore up well under the circumstances. But they shouldn’t have had to put up with this, nor should the rest of us.