Mike Pence Showed Trump How TV Debates Are Won

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Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice presidential debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City, Utah, October 7, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

At some point during last night’s vice presidential debate, perhaps about 20 minutes in, it became clear that Susan Page wasn’t moderating the debate. Mike Pence was. 

He obviously knows how to use this medium well. Hardly anyone remembers the moderators’ questions after these debates are over. The only clips that have anything more than an evening-long afterlife are those of the candidates’ soliloquies. The whole point of televised debates is to generate a few of these clips and then fire them around social media and the news networks like a pinball. 

Vice President Pence, moreover, generated his own string of debate highlights last night more or less entirely on his own terms. When asked a question, he used the first portion of his time to reply to whatever Kamala Harris had just said before moving on to address the question at hand. Once he ran out of time, he often just kept speaking, though not in the whiny, aggrieved, confrontational manner in which the president treated Chris Wallace last week. Pence simply killed the moderator’s objections with polite deference while continuing to make his point all the while until Page’s protestations ceased. 

He would not be rushed and he would not be herded or corralled by the moderator. On the one occasion on which Page put her foot down and forced the debate on to the next topic, the vice president simply waited his turn and then continued where he left off.  Throughout the debate, he managed to provide himself with enough time to say everything he wanted in response to Harris and get off most of his own points as well. For all intents and purposes, he was the timekeeper. 

Of course, Pence was also helped by the fact that whenever Harris addressed him directly, she came across as a haranguing second-grade school teacher: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking. Okay?” Self-control is not an attribute that American voters have come to associate with the Trump administration, but the vice president showed such a superabundance of it last night that it seemed to spill over out of his own person and envelop the entire debate. 

It remains the case, however, as my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty has pointed out, that none of this matters now. Trump’s monumental personal shortcomings have already vandalized his own chances at re-election beyond repair. But it was still edifying to see Pence treat a television debate the way it deserves to be treated. These are fundamentally unserious affairs. No one can learn anything consequential about either party’s platform in ten-minute segments split into two-minute subsections. How voters are supposed to get a firm grasp on each party’s foreign policy on China in a shorter time than it takes to listen to Bohemian Rhapsody once through is beyond me. When faced with constraints as absurd as these, the best thing a politician can do is precisely what the vice president did: Treat them with polite, statesmanlike contempt and try to orchestrate as many useful soundbites for himself as possible. Until we can get Joe Rogan involved, this, I’m afraid, is the best we can hope for.  

On a final note, it seems increasingly clear that Republicans have a lot to look forward to if Harris wins the Democratic nomination in 2024. It’s not for nothing that the Biden campaign has been hiding her away under lock and key until last night. She inspires no affection, trust, or sympathy whatsoever. It’s not at all clear that she can past the instinctive “I like this person” test in many places across the country outside of the Bay Area. You’d think that the Democrats might have been able to see that coming given how she performed in her own party’s primary, but alas. 

Even more concerning from a Democratic perspective is that Mike Pence isn’t anywhere near the top of the GOP’s talent pool in terms of raw political talent. In spite of this, he still managed to beat Harris handily last night. A presidential debate in four years’ time between Kamala Harris and, say, Tim Scott, could turn out very badly indeed for the Democrats. 

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