Debates 2020

The Pence-Harris Debate Was a Model of Civility, Evasion, and Obfuscation

Politeness is nice. Answering questions would be even nicer.


Last night's vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris was much politer than last week's raucous rumble between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It was also much less entertaining and only slightly more substantive, largely because both candidates followed the time-honored tradition of refusing to answer inconvenient questions.

Civility is important. Some viewers may have rolled their eyes as Pence talked about the close friendship between the late Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. But our political dialogue and social relationships would be much improved if more Americans took Pence's point seriously.

Ginsburg and Scalia, Pence noted, were "polar opposites on the Supreme Court," one "very liberal" and the other "very conservative." Yet "the two of them and their families were the very closest of friends." The lesson: "Here in America, we can disagree. We can debate vigorously, as Senator Harris and I have on this stage tonight. But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans."

While that might sound corny, there is no other way for ideologically opposed people to live together in peace. At a time when nearly everything is politicized, when mutual hatred between left and right demands that everyone pick a side and avoid fraternizing with the enemy, that message needs to be heard more.

Pence not only preached civility but modeled it. "I want to congratulate you…on the historic nature of your nomination," he told Harris, the first African-American woman to appear on a major-party ticket. "I respect the fact that Joe Biden spent 47 years in public life. I respect your public service as well."

Such graciousness should not be remarkable, but it is especially striking when compared to the venomous, overheated, take-no-prisoners rhetoric of Pence's running mate, who cannot even manage to feign respect for his opponents. It is impossible to imagine Donald Trump saying anything nice about someone who crosses him or poses an obstacle to his ambitions.

Trump's rude, crude, babyish behavior may be amusing, but it is not conducive to rational debate—or any sort of debate at all. A man who cannot contain himself when he hears someone express an opinion with which he disagrees, who cannot even keep his mouth shut until that person finishes a sentence, is incapable of having a meaningful discussion. Trump's supporters may think his boorishness shakes things up and lays bare important truths, but in practice it reveals nothing but his personal shortcomings.

While Pence presents himself as an imperturbable mensch, Trump presents himself as a petty, intolerant, excitable asshole. Although I'm not sure I want to have a beer with either of these men, one of them is clearly capable of keeping his cool when he encounters people who disagree with him. The other one clearly is not.

But civility is not everything. While Pence and Harris were generally polite to each other, both of them repeatedly dodged perfectly legitimate questions, an exasperating habit with a long history in American politics.

Regarding COVID-19, moderator Susan Page asked Harris this: "What would a Biden administration do in January and February that a Trump administration wouldn't do? Would you impose new lockdowns for businesses and schools and hotspots [or] a federal mandate to wear masks?" Harris used nearly all of her time to attack the Trump administration's response to the pandemic, never addressed lockdowns or a federal mask mandate (which Biden wishes he could impose but admits he couldn't), and closed with a vague reference to Biden's "national strategy for contact tracing, for testing, for administration of the vaccine."

Page asked Pence why the per capita COVID-19 death rate in the United States is "higher than that of almost every other wealthy country." It is an interesting and important question, but Pence did not want to answer it, so instead he praised Trump's response to the pandemic, mentioning his restrictions on international visitors and the ramping up of the country's initially pitiful virus testing capacity.

Page asked Pence about a White House reception for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett with "no social distancing" and "few masks" that "seems to have been a super-spreader event for senior administration and congressional officials." Pence did not want to talk about that, so instead he expressed "great confidence in the American people and their ability to take that information [about COVID-19 precautions] and put it into practice."

Page asked both candidates whether they had discussed "the issue of presidential disability" with their running mates—a real concern given the advanced age of both men (Trump will be 74 on Inauguration Day, while Biden will be 78) and the president's COVID-19 infection. Neither Pence nor Harris offered a meaningful response.

Page asked Harris whether the $4 trillion in tax hikes that Biden plans might "put the [economic] recovery at risk." Harris did not answer, even to deny that it would.

Page asked Pence whether Americans should "be braced for an economic comeback that is going to take not months, but a year or more." Pence talked about Trump's tax cuts, the economy's pre-pandemic performance, and Biden's plan to raise taxes.

Page asked Pence if he agrees that "man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly and [has] made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging." Pence would not say, only promising that "we're going to continue to listen to the science."

Page asked Pence if he agrees with Harris that "climate change poses an existential threat." Pence acknowledged that "the climate is changing" and again promised that "we'll follow the science."

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Page asked Pence, "what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?" Pence talked about Iran and praised Barrett as "a brilliant woman" who "will bring a lifetime of experience and a sizable American family to the Supreme Court of the United States."

Page asked Harris what she thinks California, which she represents in the Senate, would do if Roe were overturned and whether she thinks there should be "no restrictions on access to abortion." Harris' response was mostly about other subjects, although she did say, "I will always fight for a woman's right to make a decision about her own body." That was not an answer to either of Page's questions, although at least it had something to do with abortion.

Page asked Pence how the Trump administration will "protect Americans with preexisting conditions" so they have "access to affordable insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down." Pence said nothing relevant to that question, although he did introduce a completely different but timely issue: If Barrett is confirmed and Biden wins the election, he asked Harris, "are you…going to pack the Supreme Court to get your way?"

Harris, like Biden, was determined not to answer that question. "Let's talk about packing the Court," she said at one point, which seemed promising until it became clear that she was referring to Trump's judicial appointments, which are hardly analogous to an act of Congress that would expand the Supreme Court to accommodate Democrats' policy preferences.

Given all the times that Trump has implied the presidential election will be fixed and his refusal to say he will respect the outcome, Page wondered, "what steps" would Biden and Harris take "if your ticket wins and president Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power"? Although that was a perfect setup to decry Trump's irresponsible and fact-free predictions of systematic election fraud, or even to actually say how Biden would respond to the situation described by Page, Harris instead bragged about "Republicans and independents" who support her ticket and urged her audience to vote.

Page asked Pence to consider the same scenario. "If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power," she wondered, "what would you personally do?" This was an opportunity for Pence to assure Americans that Trump would never behave that way. Instead Pence expressed confidence that he and Trump will win the election, so there will be no need for a peaceful transfer of power.

The questions that Pence and Harris refused to answer were clearly relevant to the decisions that voters will make next month, and some of them—concerning, for example, the Trump administration's understanding of climate change and Democrats' aspirations to transform the Supreme Court—are pretty damned important. But it seems unlikely that we will ever get straight answers on these subjects from either ticket.

Unlike the insults, cross-talk, and constant interruptions that dominated last week's presidential debate, this sort of evasion and obfuscation has been typical of political discourse in this country for as long as I've been paying attention. It is nice that Harris and Pence showed basic respect for each other last night. It would be even nicer if they extended that respect to voters by giving them information they have a right to expect.