Most Democrats’ objections to the Trump presidency have very little to do with Mike Pence. They may not like him or agree with him, but he doesn’t stir the vehement, enraged, all-consuming opposition in them that Donald Trump does.
Most Republicans’ objections to the prospect of a Biden presidency have a lot to do with Kamala Harris. Many Republicans either think Biden won’t stand up to progressives in his party like Harris, or he’ll be a figurehead while progressives such as Harris make the real decisions behind the scenes, or that Joe Biden simply won’t be around for long and Harris will become the 47th president.
Vice President Mike Pence could say just about anything — the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody — and make it sound calming, even-tempered, and like plainspoken Midwestern common sense. For the first 45 minutes, when Pence ran over time, he just sounded like he has one half of a sentence to finish, and sounds so reasonable as he grabs an extra twenty seconds or so. But he went to that well a little too often as the night wore on.
But overall, Pence was remarkably effective, and he does it in a way that seems to lull his opponents into underestimating him. When Pence makes an attack, it either comes across as a gentle jab — “it sounds like plagiarism,” — or he makes it sound like a compliment while subtly reminding the audience of his opponent’s flaws — “I salute Joe Biden’s 47 years in public service.”
Kamala Harris was herself, with her now-familiar deliberate, polished, theatrical TNT-legal-drama-star persona that has never been my cup of tea. If you liked her before, you probably loved her tonight. If you didn’t like her before, you probably loathed her tonight. During the presidential primary, Harris garnered plenty of rave reviews from the mainstream media for her debate performances, but . . . those debate performances never turned into much support in the polls beyond an early surge. There’s always been a gap between how much the press loves Harris and how much the electorate at large loves Harris.
The role of a vice-presidential nominee is often to be an attack dog, and Harris relished playing that role tonight, arguably at the expense of any other objectives. Susan Page asked a fair, important, and open-ended question about how a Biden-Harris administration would see China. Harris veered immediately back to the criticisms she had already made of Trump on the pandemic and the economy, and never really addressed that question. The thing is, there shouldn’t have been much to dodge on this topic! If you’re going to be tough on China, say you’ll be close on China. If you think China has been unfairly demonized, and you aim to rebuild the relationship with Beijing, say that! But not answering suggests the Biden campaign hasn’t really thought through how they’ll handle arguably the most consequential foreign relationship the U.S. has at this moment.
Finally, late in the evening, Pence put her on the spot on packing the Court, and she said, “let’s talk about packing the Court” and then . . . she never answered the question.
Mike Pence had a good night. He had a good night four years ago. But his win over Tim Kaine four years ago wasn’t really a key moment in the story of the 2016 campaign, and his good night tonight probably won’t be a key moment in the story of the 2020 campaign.