A Debate Full of Divides, Some Visible, Some Transparent

The pandemic took up only a few questions at the Pence-Harris vice-presidential debate. But it was everywhere.

Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence faced off behind plexiglass dividers at the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday.
Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence faced off behind plexiglass dividers at the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday.Credit...Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
James Poniewozik

The stars of Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate were notable for their firmness, their steadiness and, for a political discussion, their unusual level of transparency.

I am referring, of course, to the plexiglass dividers.

The rounded, clear barriers on the debate stage between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris were supposedly a guard against aerosol coronavirus transmission. Experts dismissed them as little more effective than a “Please No Virus Beyond This Point” sign.

But as symbols, they were plenty effective. Beginning to end, they stood as monuments to a pandemic that has changed everything, to the administration’s struggle to control it and to the fact that, since President Trump’s diagnosis with Covid-19 was announced on Friday, the White House itself has become a biological disaster area.

The memento mori aspect of the recent news underscored that a vice-presidential debate, an afterthought in many campaigns, is serious business this year. The president, 74, remains a Covid patient. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is 77 years old himself. The vice president is a heartbeat away from the presidency, and our hearts have all been beating faster lately.

If the stakes were higher than usual in this debate, however, the temperature was lower, at least compared with the steam-blast sauna of the first Trump-Biden debate. The battle was fought with smiles and passive aggression, not tantrums and insults.

There was an alternative-reality aspect to the debate. Mr. Pence was the sort of candidate you might imagine if the Republicans had nominated a more establishment conservative in 2016. Ms. Harris is who you might expect if the Democrats had picked a nominee more representative of their young, multiracial and female constituencies.

Squint your eyes, ignore the plexiglass and it was almost as if we were living in something like normal times. The debate was contentious, evasive and often frustrating, but within the range of recognizable politics rather than an MMA fight.

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Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris sparred on topics including the response to the coronavirus and the Supreme Court vacancy.CreditCredit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor who turned her courtroom technique on her now-running-mate during the primary, went on the offensive, but with a smile. Taking the first question on the pandemic from the moderator, USA Today’s Susan Page, she blamed the White House for “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in our history.”

Mr. Pence, a smooth-toned former radio host, spent his 2016 debate defending Mr. Trump as well, but with grinning, genial shakes of the head. Four years later, the head of the coronavirus task force was still shaking his head, but gravely and grimly. Ms. Harris seemed eager to be at the debate; he did not.

As the debate moved on to other topics, he went on the counterattack, trying to cast Mr. Biden as simultaneously an establishment dinosaur and a radical. And he showed his boss’s determination to dominate the microphone, albeit at lower volume. He repeatedly ran over his time, speaking over Ms. Page and Ms. Harris.

Ms. Harris, who can be a fierce inquisitor in the Senate and onstage, countered each interruption with a smile and a crisp, “I’m speaking” — conscious, maybe, of the double bind for female candidates, who can be labeled unlikable for asserting themselves, and for candidates of color, who can get tagged as angry for the same.

Her measured response may have made the audience more conscious of Mr. Pence’s microphone manspreading, something that may have hurt Mr. Trump among the audience of the last debate. But it also probably cost her minutes of time.

And there was not much policing from Ms. Page. She wasn’t steamrollered as loudly and showily as Chris Wallace was in the first debate, but she faced her own quiet riot and had little control of it.

She started with a strong set of questions. (She, like Mr. Wallace, asked about climate change, largely ignored in past presidential debates.) But both candidates ignored those questions when it suited them, sticking to seemingly canned attacks or re-litigating the previous question.

In a debate season dominated by the pandemic — all the more so in the past week — it was surprising that Ms. Page spent relatively little time on it up front. (Ms. Harris, not surprisingly, turned the focus back to it whenever possible, whether the topic was the economy or foreign relations.)

But in 2020, there’s always something to remind you of the pandemic, overtly or subtly. At one point, a big black fly disconcertingly lit on Mr. Pence’s white shock of hair, a pestilential symbol that proved the writers of our reality can be pretty heavy-handed with the metaphors.

Even the closing moment when the candidates’ spouses joined them onstage highlighted how politicized simple medical science has become. Ms. Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, wore a mask. Karen Pence, the wife of the head of the White House coronavirus task force, did not, despite a rule requiring audience members to do so.

It was more evidence that it’s a bad idea for the debate commission to hold in-person debates this year, given its toothless gestures at pandemic safety in the two already held. And it was a glaring reminder that not all the divides in this blighted country today are made of plexiglass.

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