Home featured Kamala Harris and Mike Pence’s Debate: ‘Most Bizarre Moment Was the Fly’

Kamala Harris and Mike Pence’s Debate: ‘Most Bizarre Moment Was the Fly’


Welcome to Opinion’s commentary for the vice-presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. In this special feature, Times Opinion writers pick the winner and then rank the victory on a scale of 1 to 10: 1 means it was a very narrow win; 10 means it was a blowout. Here’s what our columnists and contributors thought of the debate.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Jamelle Bouie It was a tie! I don’t think there was a winner. Both Vice President Pence and Senator Harris came to Utah with a specific job to do: for Pence, to put the Trump administration’s record in the best possible light; for Harris, to present Joe Biden’s most popular policies and hit Trump on his handling of the pandemic. And they both did what they had to do, without creating any trouble for the top of the ticket in either case. In my mind, that’s a draw.

Elizabeth Bruenig Kamala Harris. Pence may be evangelical, but he’s not charismatic.

Christopher Buskirk Pence won this debate. He was calm, professional, competent and focused. He was in some sense the answer to every criticism leveled at Trump after the last debate. A lot of the MAGA base is lukewarm toward Pence, but he earned their respect. More important, he looks purpose-built to reassure wavering Trump supporters and undecided voters in battleground states.

Linda Chavez Harris was the clear winner. The moderator Susan Page struggled, allowing Pence to run over repeatedly while he tried his best to filibuster. But Harris was better at parrying Pence than Biden was at parrying Trump, and she did a better job demanding equal time.

Gail Collins Kamala Harris. Nobody is going to be talking about this debate in two days. They’ll be lucky to get a 10-minute discussion by serious political junkies at breakfast.

Michelle Cottle Harris has serious debate chops. She knows how to eviscerate an opponent without looking nasty. But she had a massive advantage here because Pence was defending the indefensible. As much as he tried to spin, dodge and lie his way through questions about issues like climate change, Trump’s dishonesty and the administration’s coronavirus response, there just wasn’t much he could do. As his boss would say, it is what it is.

Ross Douthat Mike Pence. You have to take into account degree-of-difficulty here: Pence’s task was to normalize the presidency of Donald Trump after its most insane week yet, and he gave a truly remarkable (and, yes, often truly brazen) performance of normalcy, from which Harris’s prosecutorial style was unable to shake him. Given objective reality, there was a hard ceiling on how well he could do. But he hit that ceiling. Harris was strong on offense but relatively weak on defense when Pence attacked Biden’s ample liabilities, and you could see in this debate the election as it might have been without Covid — not a rout, but a close-run thing.

Michelle Goldberg Harris had some weak moments — she let Pence box her in on court packing — but Pence couldn’t defend this indefensible administration. His superpower is spouting ludicrous lies with smarmy sincerity, but it was still surreal to watch him pretend that things are going well in America right now.

Nicholas Kristof Kamala Harris won. The overarching issue was Covid-19, and Pence didn’t have an explanation for why the United States has bungled the response. He bobbed and weaved and tried to change the subject, but he couldn’t escape the ghosts of over 210,000 Americans.

Matt Labash Mike Pence. Full disclosure: I wanted to loathe Pence, because I so often do, on automaton grounds. The plexiglass erected around him served as a rebuke of the administration’s nonresponse to the pandemic (the glass was just as stiff as Pence, but more transparent), making me feel as though I was visiting a Golden Corral sneeze-guarded salad bar. (Go populism!) But where was this ferocious prosecutor, Kamala Harris, that we were warned of? She was smiley and warm. I would like her if she were hosting a Lifetime talk show. But she failed to cut off the ring, to bite down hard, to bludgeon Pence with facts, when so many of the facts were on her side. Pence edged out Harris simply by having command of his facts, and appearing to be quasi-human. A rare occasion, for him. As one disillusioned conservative friend emailed me during the debate: “I like the president that Pence defends, it’s just unfortunate that he bears no relation to our president.”

Liz Mair It was a draw. Harris started out strong and had good moments, especially when attacking on Covid and the economy — her segment going from trade wars to manufacturing to agriculture to unemployment and economic insecurity was great. But Pence nailed her on her prosecutorial record, called her out for dodging on court packing and cornered her on taxes. If Pence weren’t operating with Trump’s record painted behind him, these would have been far more devastating blows.

Daniel McCarthy Mike Pence won by default at the start when Harris failed to give a concrete answer to how a Biden administration would respond differently to Covid-19. The Biden-Harris campaign is a complaint, not an answer.

Melanye Price For the most part, Kamala Harris owned this debate. Unlike Biden, she was able to make her opponent stop talking and interrupting her.

Héctor Tobar From her opening remarks, Harris attacked with the purpose and the intelligence of a super-prepared prosecutor. She hit the president on a series of focused messages: He is dishonest, incompetent, vain and the “greatest failure” in our history. Mike Pence made a smoother argument for Trump than Trump did, but he was dodging and playing defense most of the evening.

Charlie Warzel Pence is no more principled than Trump, just more disciplined. But unfortunately for him, he has to defend the disastrous record of a president who is profoundly disinterested in governing. He proved that a more coherent, sober, politician-like version of Donald Trump doesn’t work very well. Meanwhile, Harris wasn’t performing for an audience of one, and it showed. She won.

Peter Wehner Harris had a fairly easy case to prosecute against the Trump administration and she prosecuted it fairly well. She was better at making the case against Trump than in defending Biden. Pence made some effective arguments, but it was overwhelmed by his persona — inauthentic, evasive, dishonest, condescending and cloying. The fact that he does all that with otherworldly sanctimony makes him intensely unappealing.

Will Wilkinson Running against the Trump-Pence record is like riding a levitating bike downhill with the wind at your back — especially when you’re ahead double-digits in the polls. All Kamala Harris needed to do was look credibly presidential, which she pulled off with poise, emphasize the Covid death toll, which she did repeatedly, and highlight that the Trump administration is currently in court seeking to gut Obamacare and its protections against pre-existing conditions, which she hammered home at least twice. Pence had no honest reply to either damning point and couldn’t manage to bait or rattle Harris.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Jamelle Bouie I don’t think there was a pivotal moment in this debate. I do think it is interesting that Harris, like Biden, refused to answer a direct question about expanding the Supreme Court. Given their general willingness to shut down the left on other issues, it makes me think this is something they don’t want to rule out as an option.

Elizabeth Bruenig When Pence doggedly pursued Harris into swearing that a Biden administration will neither ban fracking nor repeal the Trump tax cuts — at least, not in their entirety. The reassurance that team Biden isn’t the radically leftist regime Trump and company would make them out to be was probably as comforting to moderate Democrats as it was depressing to crestfallen leftists. We rarely get to see asymmetric polarization happen in real time, so this was informative and enlightening.

Christopher Buskirk Pence asked Harris whether she and Joe Biden would pack the Supreme Court if they won the election and Amy Coney Barrett were confirmed before Inauguration Day. Last week Biden flatly refused to answer the question. Harris bobbed and weaved and put the worst possible look on avoiding a perfectly reasonable direct question about a hugely consequential matter. Her evasion is significant and only serves to reinforce the impression of a ruling class that mouths pieties about “the American people” and “our democracy” but refuses to play it straight when it matters.

Linda Chavez The moment when Harris said: “They’re coming for you.” She made a persuasive case that another four years would be a disaster for ordinary Americans, who will lose access to health care if they have pre-existing conditions.

Gail Collins Pence had an easier job, since he just had to demonstrate that the team was less crazy than the boss’s last performance suggested. Harris held her own and managed to give Pence a big smile while she was saying, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Also, if the Biden folk have their way, this is going to be a campaign that spends a lot of time on health care, and Harris did a good job in whacking Pence on protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

Michelle Cottle Harris looked straight at the camera and reminded America of this administration’s efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act: “If you have a pre-existing condition,” they are “coming for you.” Strong message in the thick of a pandemic. Later, Harris clapped back when Pence got up on his “law and order” soapbox: “I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country.” She then moved the conversation toward Trump’s sorry record on race and of coddling white supremacists. The best Pence could do was claim his boss has been misrepresented by the mean ol’ media.

Ross Douthat The moment when the moderator pivoted away from Covid-19 to a range of more normal policy issues, which happened just in time for Pence to pivot away from arguments that were becomingly dangerous brazen — his attempt to jujitsu Biden with an attack on the Obama administration’s Swine Flu performance was his worst moment by far — to a much safer range of Republican talking points and issues.

Michelle Goldberg Susan Page started by asking Pence a question he should have been forced to answer: “Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?” He completely ignored it, and Page’s failure to press him set the tone for the whole event. She let the vice president treat her questions as irrelevant and drone over her feeble attempts to make him stop talking when his time was up.

Nicholas Kristof The debate was pretty much over when Pence had no answer for America’s failure on Covid-19 and for the administration’s refusal to follow its own guidelines. Pence tried to pivot to the 2009 Swine Flu under Obama and misleadingly claimed that the White House event for Amy Coney Barrett was outside (there was also an indoor reception). There’s just no positive spin one can place on the administration’s response to the coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans.

Matt Labash When Kamala Harris showed up. She should’ve refused to debate Pence in person, since he works for Emperor Superspreader. That would’ve spoken louder volumes than anything she managed tonight.

Liz Mair Harris’s toilet paper comment is going to be everywhere, and even though she didn’t clinch victory tonight, it will seem like it as that gets replayed over and over and over.

Daniel McCarthy Senator Harris revealed the hawkish orientation of a prospective Biden-Harris administration by trying to label the Trump administration “isolationist” and by hyping threats from Iran now that the U.S. is out of the nuclear deal. Her premises lead to war.

Melanye Price The best moments were when Kamala brought Pence to heel. The worst or most bizarre moment was the fly. Pence was so low energy, it just parked there and never left.

Héctor Tobar When Susan Page was appointed as the debate moderator. Page wasn’t allowed to fact check the candidates’ answers, but she was allowed to fact-check her questions, which were complex and demanded serious answers. And she made more of an effort to enforce the debate rules.

Charlie Warzel Mike Pence didn’t answer the question about committing to a peaceful transfer of power. What more needs to be said?

Peter Wehner The most effective moment of the debate was Harris’s refrain — “They’re coming for you” — in the context of health care. Her worst moment was dodging the court packing charge.

Will Wilkinson My soul briefly left my body when Pence insisted that Harris “stop playing politics with people’s lives” after she reasonably said she’d take a new Covid-19 vaccine if doctors recommended it, but not on Trump’s authority. The fake piety of Pence’s self-indicting demand was so transcendently shameless, I doubt even Donald Trump could match it.

Credit…Eric Baradat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Jamelle Bouie Pence joining Trump in refusing to say whether he would accept the results of the election — while also spreading disinformation about so-called voter fraud — is actually a pretty big thing and also incredibly revealing in what it says about the entire ticket’s commitment to accepting the will of the voters.

Elizabeth Bruenig Pence’s gratitude and congratulations, each extended unprompted, were reminiscent of a kind of Republican performance that has become passé under Trump, but likely appeals to the very suburban G.O.P. voters the president turns off. Democrats have always had to juggle various groups in their coalition; now, with the breakdown of fusionism, Republicans have to do it, too.

Christopher Buskirk During the foreign policy discussion, Harris accused Trump of a familiar list of sins that mostly amount to reorienting American foreign policy to serve American interests. Pence responded with a list of accomplishments, including bringing to justice the killers of Kayla Mueller. Harris then expressed that she felt bad about what had happened and said, “I know Joe does too. And so does President Obama.” Throughout the debate, she referred to the former vice president as Joe but it was “President Obama.” That juxtaposition perhaps exposes a respect for Barack Obama that she does not have for her current boss.

Linda Chavez Likability is always a factor in politics. Harris came across as your smart friend who was concerned for your welfare, and Pence a dyspeptic salesman trying to sell you a clunker. Even when she was attacking the administration’s record, she never came across as nasty. She reminded me of my old boss Ronald Reagan, who could be hard as nails on policy but never resorted to personal invective.

Gail Collins For Pence: “President Trump has Jewish grandchildren.” For Harris: “If you don’t mind letting me finish …”

Michelle Cottle Despite his mild demeanor, Pence could not stop interrupting Harris and talking over the moderator. He looked mansplain-y. It may have impressed his boss, but it likely did not impress many women voters. Also, the fly that got stuck on his head for a couple of minutes is all that social media will remember.

Ross Douthat There was plenty of evasion from both candidates, but it was particularly palpable when both Pence and Harris declined to respond to a question about whether and how they were preparing to possibly take over for their aging running mates.

Michelle Goldberg I’m sorry but the most memorable thing about this debate was the fly parked for an uncomfortably long time on Pence’s head. This is an administration laid low by a plague, but it’s hard to imagine even the hackiest screenwriter being so heavy-handed in signaling it.

Nicholas Kristof Pence was less rude than Trump, but he repeatedly tried to speak over both Harris and Susan Page. Harris pushed back firmly, saying, “I’m speaking” and “I will not be lectured.” Pence’s interruptions seemed to me counterproductive, bolstering the narrative that Trump and Pence disrespect women.

Matt Labash Since the actuary tables say both of our prospective presidents have even odds of expiring in the stirrups (average life expectancy of an American male: 78.5 years.) we very well might have been watching a future-president debate tonight, instead of a vice-presidential one. But it was boring, fact-based and relatively insult-free. The truest thing Trump has tweeted in the last month (perhaps the only true thing) is that someday, the media “will miss me, very badly.” I already believe him, which I rarely do.

Liz Mair Both Harris and Pence steadfastly refused to speak honestly about their abortion positions. The bad news here is they’re both out of step with most Americans on the issue. The good news is they’re both acutely aware that they’re out of step with most Americans on the issue.

Daniel McCarthy What could Susan Page expect the candidates to say in response to her question about the health and age of their running mates? A poorly framed question elicited empty replies and showcased what’s wrong with these debates and their moderators.

Melanye Price Harris actually seemed more in control of her faculties and the issues than either Pence, Trump or Biden.

Héctor Tobar The fly that crawled onto Mike Pence’s head — and stayed there for a minute or longer — as he talked about racism. Pence didn’t seem fazed as the fly clung to the white shell of his coiffure, and it just added to the otherworldly stiffness of his presentation.

Charlie Warzel There’s something about Pence’s straight, somber and serious politician’s delivery that makes the gaslighting so much worse. Perhaps that’s because Pence’s lies feel secondhand, like they’ve been provided to him and he’s just repeating. Taken together, Trump and Pence’s dual bullying of moderators and opponents is clarifying in that they showcase the myriad tactics that powerful men everywhere use to silence people.

Peter Wehner No minds or votes were changed; that’s good news for Team Biden. The cumulative effect of Pence talking over and interrupting both Harris and the moderator Susan Page hardly helped with the Trump-Pence ticket’s huge deficit with female voters. Trump and Pence are both quite unlikable, only in different ways.

Will Wilkinson The contrast between Pence’s phony, velvet-tongued civility and Trump’s all-out rage-monster abusiveness could not be more stark. If not for Pence’s brazen, unflinching prevarication and total contempt for the woman moderator’s authority, it would have come off as a low-ley rebuke of Trump.

Jamelle Bouie, Gail Collins, Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and Nicholas Kristof are Times columnists.

Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is a Times opinion writer.

Christopher Buskirk (@thechrisbuskirk) is the editor and publisher of the journal American Greatness and a contributing opinion writer.

Linda Chavez (@chavezlinda), a former Reagan White House director of public liaison, is a political commentator.

Michelle Cottle (@mcottle) is a member of the Times editorial board.

Matt Labash, a former national correspondent at The Weekly Standard, is the author of “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader.”

Liz Mair (@LizMair), a strategist for campaigns by Scott Walker, Roy Blunt, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry, is the founder and president of Mair Strategies.

Daniel McCarthy (@ToryAnarchist) is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Quarterly.

Melanye Price (@ProfMTP), a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, is the author, most recently, of “The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race.”

Héctor Tobar (@TobarWriter), an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” and a contributing opinion writer.

Charlie Warzel, a New York Times Opinion writer at large, covers technology, media, politics and online extremism.

Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the previous three Republican administrations, is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”

Will Wilkinson (@willwilkinson), the vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, is a contributing opinion writer.

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