Kamala Harris forgot who she was debating

9 October 2020

2:42 AM

9 October 2020

2:42 AM

Perhaps Senator Kamala Harris would have performed better last night if she had remembered who she was debating. It was not — as she hoped it would be when she was a candidate in the Democratic primaries — President Donald Trump. Instead, it was a candidate with a radically different demeanour.

Vice President Mike Pence has his fair share of political enemies, as well as staunchly conservative viewpoints that put him at odds with plenty in Congress — and the country. But, privately, people like him. He’s thought to be pleasant, respectful and decent — even his Democrat counterparts say so. In this sense, Pence and Joe Biden are cut from the same cloth: not politically, not philosophically, but simply liked by colleagues on the left and the right. When former President Obama struggled, multiple times, to negotiate debt ceiling deals during his tenure, he’d send in Biden to negotiate — a rare Republican whisperer during increasingly tense times.

If Harris had thought of her sparring partner as a Biden figure rather than a Trump, her tactics might have changed for the better. The first time she asserted her voice over Pence (‘Mr Vice President, I’m speaking’) felt strong, perhaps a stand-out moment in the debate. It reminded the audience at home that she showed up to speak and, unlike the debate before, was not going to be shouted over. But last night’s debate was nothing like the presidential showdown the week before. Pence didn’t shout. No one — not Pence nor the moderator — was seemingly trying to stop her contributions.

And very quickly, Harris’s attempt to paint Pence as patriarchal or belittling started to fall flat. In stark contrast to the President’s treatment of Biden, Pence was actually listening to the Senator, putting questions straight to her that picked up on her own talking points and challenged them. His interjections were often framed as questions, encouraging a response (which often didn’t come). Pence’s points of order on the economy teased out dramatic differences in how the two parties would handle the economic recovery from Covid. His question to Harris about whether Biden was ‘only going to repeal part of the Trump tax cuts’ is something viewers at home, struggling with their finances, would have undoubtedly wanted to hear.

What voters were forced to endure last week between Trump and Biden was, in a sense, deeply unfair: they deserved the opportunity to hear vision and detail from the contenders to lead their country — and Trump, primarily, denied them that. But the opposite of Trump’s bad behaviour is not zero engagement with the opposition: it is respectful interaction and challenge. If you’re on that debate stage, in the privileged position of potentially serving the country at the highest level, robust debate should not just be expected, but actively sought out. After Harris first asserted herself, she could have started to exchange (polite) fire for fire, challenging the Vice President’s spin in a pointed and direct way. Instead, her repeated rejection of conversation made her look, by the end, underprepared and unwilling to give direct answers.

The presidential candidates each needed something unique from their VP pick last night. Trump needed Pence to return some fragment of stability and respect to the debates while Biden needed Harris to get behind his more moderate proposals, in contrast to what she advocated in the primaries. On these counts, both speakers rose to the occasion and did their jobs well. Their performances are also unlikely to have any real impact on the trajectory of the race. But Harris provided a lesson for the party at large on what happens when you expect every Republican to act like Donald Trump: more often than not, your tactics will be badly misplaced.

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