President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept a new plan for a virtual second presidential debate reflects how such an event would likely limit his capacity to dominate the stage and trample the rules in a bid to launch a comeback against Democrat Joe Biden.
The decision by the Commission on Presidential Debates to hold a remote encounter next week follows Trump’s diagnosis with Covid-19 after the White House became a raging hotspot and is an ironic consequence of the President’s failure to protect himself and those around him amid a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.
The apparent loss of the next face-to-face encounter with Biden likely makes it even more difficult for the President to use the second debate to engineer a turnaround in a race that increasingly appears to be trending in the direction of the former vice president who is widening his lead in the polls.
“I heard that the Commission a little while ago changed the debate style and that is not acceptable to us,” Trump said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business.
“I beat him easily in the first debate … I’m not going to do a virtual debate. I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate – that’s not what debating is all about, you sit behind a computer and do a debate – it’s ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want.”
The last part of that sentence hints at Trump’s biggest objection to the new format – he would be less able to impose his personality on the showdown. In the first debate last week, the President constantly interrupted his opponent and the moderator Chris Wallace. Although his behavior appears to have alienated many viewers, he seems convinced that his characteristic rule breaking helped him win the debate.
For the Biden campaign, which is up by double digits in the most recent national polls, the new arrangement removes another risky moment as the days remaining in the campaign dwindle and as more Americans cast early and absentee ballots. It also gives the former vice president’s team an opening to say that the change in the format of the debate is all Trump’s fault given his casual attitude to social distancing.
Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien blasted the decision on the debate and said Trump would do a rally instead.
“For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe Biden’s defense by unilaterally canceling an in-person debate is pathetic. That’s not what debates are about or how they’re done,” Stepien said in a statement.
Thursday’s decision by the Commission, in retrospect, makes it even more significant that the single vice presidential debate on Wednesday night between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris of California did not appear to measurably change the shape of the race.
Pence did his best to recast the reality of Donald Trump’s presidency, but Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic pick for his job, refused to let him spin away the nation’s current dire plight amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” the California senator said in her first answer in Salt Lake City, pinning Pence with the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans from Covid-19.
“They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you,” Harris said. “They knew and they covered it up. … The President said you’re on one side of his ledger if you wear a mask, you’re on the other side of his ledger if you don’t. And in spite of all of that, today they still don’t have a plan.”
Harris – from a multi-racial, immigrant family from the liberal West Coast – and Pence – the white, male conservative, evangelical product of the heartland – were an apt representation of the two Americas disputing the election and whose divergent paths and belief systems are at the root of the country’s current political estrangement.
While both Pence and Harris refused to say whether they had discussed the ticklish topic of succession with their septuagenarian ticket-toppers, given their assured performances at the debate, it would not be a stretch to envision either of them in the Oval Office.
The debate might actually have been the most normal moment of a campaign warped by a once-in-a-century pandemic, virtual conventions, darkened rallies and constant eruptions by a volcanic commander-in-chief.
It unfolded against a backdrop of more than 7.5 million coronavirus infections, millions of Americans out of work and with many schools kids and students stuck at home in unsatisfactory online lessons.
And in a moment that summed up the White House’s repeated flouting of public health recommendations, second lady Karen Pence removed her face mask as she stood on stage with her husband following the event in an apparent infringement of agreed-upon rules. Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, kept his mask on when he went on stage to congratulate his wife.
Back in Washington, aides who wanted to talk to a sickened President who disdains masks and social distancing had to don face-coverings and surgical gowns.
True to form, Trump couldn’t let Pence have his one night in the spotlight all to himself, releasing a video hours before his running mate went on stage that proclaimed his own Covid-19 infection was a “blessing from God” while again downplaying the disease and over-hyping the availability of therapies and coming vaccines.
His intervention encapsulated Pence’s burden: trying to impose a sheen of success on a presidency that while wildly popular with the conservative base is seen by a majority of voters as unmoored amid a clutch of crises over public health, the economy and race less than four weeks from Election Day.
‘Excuse me, Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking’
Both Pence and Harris did what conventional, polished politicians do – they landed blows, probed one another’s weaknesses and artfully dodged the questions for which they did not have a politically safe answer. It was largely a civil affair after last week’s meltdown in front of millions of viewers by an over-torqued Trump.
Harris several times was forced to stifle Pence, who frequently spoke past his time, with the words, “Excuse me, Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking” – a retort weighted by the gender and racial dimensions given her historic status vying to become the first Black and South Asian American female vice president, and her nomination has already made history. But the interruptions went both ways, and there was no need to drown out Pence, as smooth and priestly as ever, with “the shut up man!” admonition employed by Democratic nominee Joe Biden last week.
Pence, who as the head of the coronavirus task force shares blame for the chaotic response to the crisis, tried as he often does to project optimism about the pandemic. But the fact he’s been doing so for months tended to undercut his effectiveness. In a brazen moment, he accused Harris of politicizing hoped-for vaccines and disrespecting the sacrifices of Americans during a dark time.
“Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” Pence warned Harris in an ironic assault since Trump has consistently put his own political needs ahead of a fact-based approach to an emergency that has devastated normal life.
The vice president fell back on familiar and fact-twisting arguments that Trump had saved millions of lives, misrepresenting his China travel ban and hyping the prospect of vaccines that experts say may get approved this year but will not be available to most Americans until well into 2021. Often, Pence delivered the same misinformation as the President about the pandemic, even if his courtly manner did not make the transgressions seem so flagrant.
Harris repeatedly brought the argument back to an indictment of the Trump-Pence response to the virus. The two acrylic glass screens between the candidates were a constant reminder of the issue that the vice president could not escape.
Both candidates can walk away satisfied
More Americans said Harris did the best job in the vice presidential debate Wednesday night, according to a CNN Instant Poll of registered voters who watched. About 6-in-10 (59%) said Harris won, while 38% said Pence had the better night – but the results aren’t likely to change the trajectory of the race.
Pence accomplished what he came to do – defending Trump – and was most effective in cross-examining Harris on whether Democrats would try to increase the size of the Supreme Court bench to subvert Trump’s conservative majority. He was also strong on the economy. He took aim at Biden when Harris attacked the President’s trade wars, calling the top Democrat on the ticket a “cheerleader for Communist China through several decades.”
Harris didn’t do much to clear up Biden’s climate change policy as Republicans accuse him of embracing the liberal Green New Deal approach they claim will kill the energy industry and jobs. And the California senator demanded the White House let voters decide on the destiny of the Supreme Court, pushing back against Trump’s nomination of conservative favorite Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Harris also made hay over The New York Times report about Trump’s repeated failure to pay federal taxes and contribution of only $750 in 2016 and 2017 – demanding to know to whom the commander in chief owed $400 million. Pence repeated the President’s denials and claimed – not that convincingly – that his boss had paid “millions of dollars” in taxes.
In a worrying sign, in an election that could tear at constitutional norms, Pence joined his boss in refusing to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power. And he parroted conservative media talking points pushing back against the truth that Trump declined to disavow white supremacists during last week’s fiery first debate with Biden.
Crucially for Democrats, Harris made no errors likely to slow Biden’s momentum – as their campaign piles up double digit leads in national polls. She showed empathy for the bereaved amid the pandemic and for the millions who have lost their jobs. She only slipped into her more familiar prosecutorial mode once in the evening – on the issue of criminal justice – a key Trump theme.
Conservatives likely thought Pence did great and find the prospect of a Harris vice presidency horrifying. The same is undoubtedly true the other way around. Liberals could find much to embrace in Harris’ performance while viewing Pence as on a different ideological planet.
But given that Trump’s campaign desperately needs a reset, and a ray of hope going into the final three weeks of the campaign with the convalescing President on the sidelines, it was ultimately probably a more satisfactory night for the Democratic campaign. And while they often provide entertaining moments, vice presidential debates don’t decide elections, a truism that is even more appropriate this year with the most tumultuous presidency in generations is on the ballot.
Ultimately, in years to come, history might remember the night not for the jousting of two capable performers but for the single fly that settled on Pence’s white hair at one point, spawning scores of instant social media memes.