In perhaps the most chaotic week of a chaotic presidency, what was most surprising about tonight’s vice-presidential debate was how oddly normal it felt.
Five days ago, the president of the United States was hospitalized after contracting a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. There were legitimate questions about whether Donald Trump could execute the powers of his office. In the days since, dozens of people who work in or closely with the White House and the president’s reelection campaign have become infected, including senior officials in the government, the Republican Party, and the U.S. military. The president has proclaimed himself to be “cured” of the virus, but the extent of his illness remains unknown to the public. Meanwhile, Trump has continued to undermine the integrity of the election, refused to commit to relinquishing power if he loses, and, as recently as this afternoon, suggested that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, “shouldn’t be allowed” to even run.
In front of that backdrop, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris politely traded milquetoast zingers and debated policy for 90 minutes like it was 2012—or some other year before Trump commandeered American politics and remade it in his own image.
Pence and Harris recited talking points and dutifully attacked the men leading each other’s tickets; they dodged questions and tried to talk for longer than they were allowed; the time-honored debate rejoinder “You’re entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts” made not one, but two appearances. In other words, tonight’s debate was like every other general-election matchup before Trump came on the scene. The most memorable moment of the entire affair belonged not to the candidates but to a fly that landed on Pence’s head and remained stuck in his shock of white hair for a few minutes, likely distracting the viewing audience from an important discussion of racial injustice.
The Pence-Harris debate was wholly unlike last week’s meeting between Trump and Biden, an evening that Trump turned unwatchable by his interruptions and insults, and by his steadfast refusal to adhere to any semblance of debate rules. Pence and Harris interrupted each other plenty, and they talked over moderator Susan Page, but they did so in the normal way of a smooth, long-winded politician that viewers surely found familiar. Unlike Trump’s propensity for outright lies, their exaggerations and distortions were carefully cloaked in political rhetoric. When Harris attacked the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic as a “failure,” for example, the vice president slyly tried to accuse her of insulting the American public instead.
Both candidates played their roles effectively. Pence defended the administration’s record and softened Trump’s rough edges, substituting a measure of eloquence for the president’s bluster. He said the administration would “follow the science” on a COVID-19 vaccine, even though the president has dismissed science, and he said “the climate is changing,” even as Trump repeatedly calls climate change “a hoax.” The vice president highlighted Trump’s belated denunciation of white supremacy, despite the president’s habitual refusal to do so at important moments. Harris, the former prosecutor, turned just about every question into an indictment of the Trump presidency, including its handling of the pandemic and the economy and its attempt to eviscerate the health-care protections of the Affordable Care Act.
Trump was, of course, an invisible star of the night. It was his record up for debate, and his name was mentioned, on average, once a minute. But his mere absence transformed the forum into something quieter, more approachable. It served as a reminder that although the fissures in American society that he has exploited predate his arrival as a politician, the chaos of the past four years belongs to him. Trump is the chaos, and without him, there is no chaos. At least that’s the easy answer. When Pence was given a chance to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins, he, too, refused to do so—though in his typical fashion, the answer was a simple deflection, not a veiled threat laden with the suggestion of violence. Trump’s exit won’t erase the deep political disagreements Americans have, nor will it automatically restore the norms he has weakened. But tonight’s debate hinted that, at a minimum, those battles will proceed more civilly.
If that is the main takeaway that viewers have, perhaps the advantage goes to Biden, no matter how effectively Pence made the president’s case tonight. After all, it is Biden who is offering America a return to normalcy—a calmer, yes, even a more boring presidency. Tonight the country saw what that might look like. It watched, in Pence and Harris, a pair of career politicians take the stage once again, offering a window into a world without Donald Trump at its center.