Waiting for a debate

debate : a contention by words or arguments (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary Eleventh Ed.)


In practice our formal presidential debates often come down to recitation of talking points devoid of reasoned argument or meaningful exchange of ideas. Presumably this is what candidates are coached to do by cadres of professional political consultants who do the candidates, their parties, and the country a disservice. There is plenty of reason to believe that Kamala Harris would conduct herself admirably in a real debate, but that is not what these things are about. As for Mike Pence, he stuck to the Trumpist principle that he who talks longest and loudest, going beyond his allotted time and intruding on that of his opponent, dominates. Here Harris gets points for pushing back firmly and with dignity when Pence interrupted time and again. Yes, Harris occasionally interrupted Pence, but she gracefully backed off when moderator Susan Page noted that it was the VP's time to speak.


What was the result of this dynamic? You had one woman, Harris, who was mainly following the agreed-on rules; one man, Pence, who was mainly ignoring them; and another woman, Page, who seemed less and less able to rein Pence in. (Fallows, Where Harris Succeeded)


Which brings us to a matter we might as well dispose of now, namely, the way women tend to be perceived, labeled, and judged by blockheads among us. James Fallows covered this in his debate postmortem:


As a woman, she had to walk the inch-wide line that separates being submissive from being harsh. A retort that would be tough from a male politician could be—kiss of misogynist death—shrill from her. For a Black woman, the path that is strong but not angry is narrower still. But Harris has had a lifetime’s practice with such navigation, which she put to use.


George Stephanopoulos reportedly accused Pence of the high crime of mansplaining, and other analysts weighed in on Pence's condescension and sexism. One would have to be pretty naïve to miss that this is part of it, but I think only part. Condescension is the default Trumpist position toward anyone who does not believe Trump was sent down from on high to save the country from Hollywood pedophiles and to undo every accomplishment by the black man who preceded him as president.* Having said that, I would be remiss if I failed to note that Trump is notoriously prickly when challenged by women in general and women of color in particular. It is not out of bounds to surmise that Pence, a certified sycophant, harbors a kindred disposition about the place of women and people of color. So, yes, the specter of sexism is certainly present, but again I think it is only part of the story and dwelling on it overmuch distracts us from other issues that are at least as relevant.…


Such as the fact that the faux-polite (Fallows' description) Pence lies as shamelessly as the president. Both candidates made statements that were incorrect (see AP FACT CHECK). Harris's fell within the realm of exaggerated, disingenuous, or otherwise misleading statements that are unfortunately the coin of campaign rhetoric, annoying, deserving of being called out, but common and minor enough let pass without too much fuss. Some of this can attributed to the difficulty of explaining complex topics within the limits of the debate framework, some to carelessness, and some should be laid on the heads of the professional political consultant class.


Pence on the other hand, like his master, traffics in easily refuted whoppers of an altogether different order of magnitude, e.g. (cherry-picking from the AP list):

  • the suggestion that the Amy Coney Barrett spectacle was anything other than a high-risk event

  • the charge that Biden wants to ban fracking

  • the claim that the Trump administration "listens to the science" on climate change

  • the claim that he and Trump have a plan to improve health care and protect people with preexisting conditions

  • the oft repeated claims that Trump saved millions of lives when he suspended all travel from China, that Biden called the decision xenophobic, and that as president Biden would have caused millions more deaths by not instituting a ban, when in fact "Trump’s order did not suspend 'all travel from China.' He restricted it, and Biden never branded the decision 'xenophobic.' Dozens of countries took similar steps to control travel from hot spots before or around the same time the U.S. did."

As with last week's presidential debate, the moderator took heat for losing control. Susan Page's efforts to rein in Pence when he repeatedly talked way beyond his allotted time were as futile as Chris Wallace's more confrontational entreaties to the president in the first debate. Here as in the presidential debate I do not know what else she could have done short of gagging the recalcitrant jerk.


Page asked good questions but failed to follow up or press Pence and Harris when they ignored the questions. Fallows noted correctly that Harris at least began most of her answers with a response to the question that had been asked before launching off into prepared talking points. Pence did not even do that much, instead careening off into another subject altogether. There were times when a direct response from Harris could have played well in contrast to Pence. For instance, it would be nice if she had come prepared with a solid answer to the question about whether she and Biden have discussed a possible transfer of power should that become necessary, a question that could have been anticipated as well as something that should a reasonable expectation of any presidential candidate and running mate regardless of age.


The accepted wisdom of the punditocracy is that Harris's assignment was to do no damage and to reassure voters that she was up to stepping up as president if called upon to do so. She was fine on both counts. She was unflustered by Pence's shenanigans, poised, dignified. Nothing wrong with that outcome.


I close with an observation from my man JVL at The Bulwark and a closing remark by Fallows.


Jonathan V. Last's column today is worth reading in its entirety but especially for calling out Pence's "dog whistle on race and the rule of law." When asked whether he believed justice had been done in the case of Breanna Taylor, Pence said, "I trust our justice system." To this Last asserts, rightly I think, "Pence’s non-answer amounts to: Whatever outcome the justice system arrives at is, by definition, just. So don’t question it." Then, he goes on to present as counterpoint the Trumpist reaction to the conviction of Roger Stone and the clearing of Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing earlier this year. That too was our justice system at work.


On the one hand, this is the sort of hypocrisy we expect from politicians.


But on the other hand, the subject of this hypocrisy is the rule of law and the purpose of it is to defend the killing of a black woman.


This isn’t politics as usual. It’s an outrage. The fact that people weren’t outraged last night simply because Pence made this argument at a normal decibel level and mostly within the time rules of the debate does not make it "normal" as a matter of politics. (Last)


The final word to Fallows: "Rules that aren’t enforced might as well not exist. Biden and Harris both bore up well under the circumstances. But they shouldn’t have had to put up with this, nor should the rest of us."


*Editor's note: Hyperbole is employed here as a rhetorical flourish not to be taken literally.


References

David Matthews

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