On the menu today: The vice-presidential debate is complete, and Mike Pence turned in another top-notch performance — which doesn’t mean that there aren’t tougher questions to be asked about how he and his values fit in the larger overall Trump administration. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris was her usual self, and it feels as if the coverage of her since 2016 has been a long exercise in gaslighting. Finally . . . we may not have more debates this year!
‘A Christian, a Conservative, and a Republican, in That Order’
Vice President Mike Pence won last night. Whether a vice-presidential debate will significantly alter the course of the campaign is another question.
There is probably no figure in American politics who would be a “natural fit” as Donald Trump’s vice president. Up until he was required to have a running mate, Trump was a one-man show, the one-man circus coming to town, unpredictable, controversial, larger-than-life.
Former Indiana governor Mike Pence is none of these. Trump vents his spleen at every opportunity; Pence is reserved and even-keeled. Trump trusts his gut, improvises, and changes his mind; Pence emphasizes that he prioritizes timeless conservative values. For a while, it looked as if the pair could make an effective Felix-and-Oscar, yin-and-yang partnership.
But for four years, it’s been clear that this is the Trump presidency, and Pence is largely a background figure handling the details behind the scenes. Both Trump and Pence are fine with this arrangement, and either man would probably be uncomfortable in the other’s role — or at least Trump has no interest in a supporting role, and Pence doesn’t feel any inclination to take the spotlight away from the president.
Pence’s slogan for a long time was, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” This was often an applause line, and it deserved to be. Pence introduced himself as a man who had his values and priorities in order.
Pence will probably never write a tell-all, so we’re left to speculate if he feels like he’s ever had to compromise his values in this administration. Did he see the policy of separating children from their parents at the border as consistent with his Christian values? Did he hear the arguments “we need to take away children” or “it did not matter how young the children were” and conclude they were consistent with what Jesus Christ would want him to do? When Trump goes on a Twitter tirade, telling a story of Mika Brzezinski “bleeding badly from a facelift,” did Pence believe he was witnessing good Christian values? Or the time Trump called Stormy Daniels “Horseface”? Or calling Omarosa “that dog” — to say nothing of the decision to hire Omarosa in the first place? When Trump insisted he had never called McCain a loser — and it’s on video, “I don’t like losers” — did Pence think this was consistent with Christian teachings?
Has Pence ever felt the need to tell the president he’s doing something wrong?
Does Pence believe that the president publicly speculating that Joe Scarborough killed his intern decades ago is consistent with Pence’s values? Would Jesus have met politely with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un and not brought up their abominable records of human-rights abuses? Would the Son of God have shrugged off the Saudi regime’s murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi with, “It’s all about America first”?
You can argue that some of these decisions are understandable losses of temper or concessions to the reality of statecraft. But it’s much harder to argue that all of these policies, statements, and actions reflect an administration guided by the values and principles of Jesus Christ.
And perhaps Jesus’s inherent divine ability to heal the sick gave Him a different perspective on contagious disease prevention, but wouldn’t He have wanted all of us to be careful to not spread the coronavirus to others? Would He have wanted frequent testing, and immediate notification of anyone in contact with a potentially contagious carrier? What would the Son of God make of a White House team that refuses to do contact tracing of those within its own walls? How many times has Pence had to bite his tongue, or resist the urge to object to what he’s seeing and hearing in front of him?
And would Jesus want the vice president to bite his tongue, or resist the urge to object to what he’s seeing and hearing in front of him?
And if Pence sees things that he thinks are morally wrong and contrary to his Christian values happening around him . . . and he doesn’t speak up for what he believes in . . . is he really “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”?
And on the Other Side of the Stage . . .
But last night featured Pence up against Kamala Harris.
Ever watch a movie or read a book that everyone around you seems to be raving about, and feel like the kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes? Whatever magnificence, excellence, and brilliance that everyone else seems to see, you can’t see it, and you can’t tell whether everyone else is crazy or you are?
That’s how I feel with Kamala Harris. The appeal of Harris eludes me the way opposing skill position players elude New York Jets defenders. No matter how I move, no matter what angle I take, I feel as if I never come close.
What has me suspecting that I’m not the crazy one is that if Harris was as good as her fans both inside and outside the media insist . . . she would not have dropped out of the presidential race on December 3, well before the Iowa caucuses.
Her official explanation was that she didn’t have the financial resources to continue. Okay, but why? Large and small donors are out there, and they’re not feeling stingy in general. Democratic candidates at all levels have raised and spent more than $5 billion this cycle. What gave Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren the resources to last until Super Tuesday, but not Harris? It’s not as if there was a lack of debates or opportunities to get her message out or attract attention.
Inject me with sodium pentothal, and I’ll blurt that Harris is just not that good, that decades of closing arguments to juries as a prosecutor have left her sounding as if she’s always giving the kind of dramatic monologue that Sam Waterston would give in the final minutes of a Law and Order episode. “How dare I? How dare you, sir! I say this because we pledge allegiance to a flag. And to a Republic for which it stands! One nation under God! Indivisible! With liberty and justice for all! No more questions, your honor!”
I also suspect that by running for office as a Democrat, in the political environment of first San Francisco and then California as a whole, she’s had the political wind at her back her whole career and doesn’t realize what a help that was. Yes, almost all politicians traffic in clichés, dodge questions, and try to be as charming as possible. But Harris often particularly seems like an actress playing a role. Maybe it’s that she now thinks and just naturally speaks in phrases that sound as if they were tested in focus groups. She seems rehearsed when she speaks off-the-cuff and guarded during her appearances that are supposed to be unguarded.
No doubt some of my skepticism about Harris is shaped by coverage that, early in the cycle, treated every little thing she did as magic, even shopping for clothes. Harris arrived in Washington, and many people in the media world seemed to instantly decide the former state attorney general was inherently awesome, and that coverage of her had to treat her as this Oprah-like, universally beloved figure. Her record as a prosecutor and state AG has a lot for skeptics to pick over, but it felt as if most of this got dismissed as ancient history. As Jack Shafer observed in August, the media rarely covers the California senator as if her own presidential bid crashed and burned less than a year ago: “Yesterday, Harris was just another overbaked politician. Today, she’s fresh as can be, and the press corps can’t stop salivating.”
Actually, if you were looking for them last night, you could find assessments of Harris that were not so glowing, suggesting that maybe some other people see the same under-appealing figure on stage that I did.
Our old friend Tim Alberta: “This debate is dull and devoid of any big, memorable, needle-moving moments. But it’s pretty obvious Kamala Harris spent more time rehearsing attacks on Donald Trump than she did rehearsing defenses of Joe Biden.” Alberta later relayed the assessment of Harris from a Frank Luntz focus group: “evasive . . . nervous . . . shifting blame . . . caring . . . snarky . . . too rehearsed . . . nervous . . . evasive . . . abrasive . . . unsteady . . . rigid . . . unpresidential.”
Megan McArdle: “Kamala Harris is . . . not a great debater.”
Maybe No More Debates This Year?
Breaking shortly before I sent off this newsletter, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the next presidential debate will be virtual, not in person, and the Trump campaign said . . . in-person, or no debate at all.
A released statement from Bill Stepien, Trump 2020 campaign manager:
President Trump won the first debate despite a terrible and biased moderator in Chris Wallace, and everybody knows it. For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe Biden’s defense by unilaterally canceling an in-person debate is pathetic. That’s not what debates are about or how they’re done. Here are the facts: President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration. The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head. We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.
ADDENDUM: Are we really two debates into this cycle with no questions about reopening America’s schools during the pandemic?