America almost got the debate it deserved

Highly quotable.
Highly quotable.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyde
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The vice presidential debate of the US election was remarkable for what it was not: a shitshow.

Unlike last week’s debacle featuring president Donald Trump speaking over his Democratic rival Joe Biden, vice president Mike Pence and senator Kamala Harris were essentially civil to each other. They even shared roughly equal air time—just over 36 minutes each—skating across topics such as the pandemic, the economy, healthcare, and foreign policy.

And yet anyone who tuned in expecting to see two leaders dig into meaty topics was likely disappointed. As much as Harris stuck to facts and answered the questions asked of her, Pence managed to ignore the moderator’s queries and follow his own agenda, as he is known to do.


Those who showed up to watch Harris, the former prosecutor, skewer Pence were probably not wholly satisfied either. She got in some zingers, especially in the first 10 minutes or so of the debate, and she opened with a sharp takedown of the Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. When Pence attempted to interrupt her a few times, she blocked him with “I’m still speaking,” a phrase that resonated with women on social media.


And yet, for the remainder of the debate, she was more congenial, smiling often, and taking on a professorial tone when she spoke directly to the camera, just as Biden had done in the presidential event.

Both Harris and Pence accomplished what they needed to do. Pence managed to stay steady and focused, like a grown-up. He didn’t manterrupt 51 times. Harris found the line between being powerful and likable, a sad, gendered demand of women in politics.

In the end, the two missions dovetailed into something bland, a debate that didn’t take viewers to wildly interesting places. That left an opening for a common housefly that hung out on Pence’s white hair for two long minutes to steal the spotlight and all the memes.