Generally calm and conventional, this evening's veep debate was also civil and substantive, as far as the well-rehearsed talking points and the candidates' abbreviated bickering allowed. Plexiglass barriers separated Sen Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Vice President Mike Pence, who argued before a covid-haunted Salt Lake City studio and its inexplicably live audience.
But it was better than the first presidential debate, a mercy given the unrelenting daily pace of the political chaos all around it. It was a glimpse of something normal, a rendering of current political concerns free of the usual gyre of horseshit whirling around Trump—even when they were talking about Trump.
Pence was slow and unconvincing and ignored the questions, but also smooth and confident and not a pulsating angry asshole, a marked improvement over his boss. Kamala was animated, engaging and direct; sometimes smirking but stronger and more earnest as the hour went on.
Things frayed now and again. Pence talked over moderator Susan Page when she tried to enforce time limits. Page was reduced to plaintively repeating "Thank you, Vice President Pence" over and over until he was finished. When he tried to do likewise with Harris, she shut him down: "I'm speaking."
Topics ranged from disease to China to abortion and racial justice. Pence's dismal record as the head of the Coronavirus Task Force. Harris's dismal record as the Attorney General of the State of California. The most energetic tangle was probably over the Supreme Court: just as Harris was strongest on the pandemic and healthcare, Pence successfully pointed out the Democrats' only plan for the court is to pack it. But he was elsewhere evasive, and she elsewhere vague. No blows landed hard, nothing said will have changed anyone's opinion.
Nonetheless, Wednesday's was a more articulate discussion of the same things that divide the country than Trump and Biden offered. In that respect, maybe the debate was clarifying for anyone tuning in without fatigue, cynicism or bad faith.
Even so, the only star tonight was the fly that made its home, briefly, on Pence's impervious white keratin helmet.
Onward to next week and the second presidential matchup, a dive back into the gyre.