The Replacements: Harris vs. Pence

This essay is part of a periodic series on the 2020 presidential election. Some earlier pieces can be found here.

By now, as regards the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, you have heard that “not much was said”, “no one made a mistake”, and that both candidates “held their own.”

You may also have heard that it was more “civilized” than the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden and that the moderator, Susan Page from the Washington bureau of USA Today, managed to keep the candidates “in line”.

What you might have missed, especially if you only saw a few highlights of the fly, is that the so-called debate (it had all the depth of synchronized robocalls) had almost nothing to do with history, politics, economics, or the 2020 election and everything to do with that in 2024, for which Pence and Harris begin as the frontrunners.

According to the debate libretto, Pence was supposed to be the doltish faith healer from Indiana, with his hands on the radio, while Harris was the hard-charging prosecutor, the debate champion (okay, leave out her 2% in the Democratic primaries) who is good on her feet and can talk to a jury. But for much of the evening Harris preferred to sing songs of herself, which allowed Pence to deliver endless messages “from our sponsor”—government of the casino, by the casino, and for the casino, in which he’s a piano player.

The Colonial Air of a Brooklyn Liquor Store

The debate was held at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. On a retro-colonial, founding-father, red-white-and-blue stage set, the Commission on Presidential Debates (it could also be called A Convenient Front Company Owned By the Two Major Parties So Things Don’t Get Out of Hand) arranged three grey metal desks in a triangle, as though after the debate the candidates could get down to the serious business of selling life insurance.

In between the desks some health-and-safety consultant placed plexiglass dividers that gave the stage the stale air of a Brooklyn liquor store more than that of a hydroxychloroquine safe house.

Moderator Page spoke like a Sunday school teacher. (“The two campaigns and the commission on presidential debates agreed to the ground rules for tonight. I’m here to enforce them…”)

I am sure her virtuous presence was comforting to the Pences, especially as Mike would be spending the evening on stage with two women who were not his wife (or wives, as, after all, this was Utah).

Page drafted nine thoughtful, multi-part questions about Covid, the economy, China, and the Supreme Court, etc., but she need not have bothered, as both candidates spent the evening ignoring the questions, occasionally speaking over each other, and giving pre-recorded service announcements, not unlike those at Amtrak stations. (“Now leaving on track seven….I am speaking, Mr. Vice President….Senator, you’re entitled to your own opinion, you’re not entitled to your own facts…”)

Take Some Bleach and Call me in the Morning

The challenge for Harris, in responding to the Covid question, “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, a federal mandate to wear masks?”, was not to be personally disrespectful of the convalescent Trump while at the same time conveying the message that he is a negligent superspreader who has killed off some 200,000 Americans.

If you believe that only Trump and Pence hold the copyright on ineffective political ideas when dealing with Covid, think again, as here, in full, is how the Biden-Harris administration will bring the virus to bay, as per Kamala:

They still don’t have a plan. Well, Joe Biden does. And our plan is about what we need to do around a national strategy for contact tracing, for testing, for administration of the vaccine, and making sure that it will be free for all. That is the plan that Joe Biden has and that I have, knowing that we have to get a hold of what has been going on, and we need to save our country.

Given the vagueness of that, I might take my chances with some candyman’s steroids and a little bleach.

In trying to explain away the virus, Pence hit the high notes from Trump’s Hallelujah Chorus: it was China’s fault, we did all we could, banned all those flights from Wuhan, saved millions of lives, etc.—all standard fare.

But her comeback on this, although she turned full-on to the camera when speaking, was to say: “So I want to ask the American people, how calm were you when you were panicked about where you were going to get your next roll of toilet paper?”

Vice-President Mike Drebin, Police Squad

Pence looks a lot like the actor Leslie Nielsen (Naked Gun, Airplane!). He was wearing the standard Trump-issue red necktie and spoke gravely (“And don’t call me Shirley…”), even when blaming “the American people” for the absence of masks and distancing at the Rose Garden infection jamboree for Amy Coney Barrett. (“Many of the people who were at that event…actually were tested for Coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise. The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.”) So far some 215,000 Americans have made some pretty bad choices.

At Trump rallies, Pence is a warm-up band, bouncing around stage and doing the phallic thumb gesture for the MAGA crowd. When he speaks, it comes out as one long grovel, in which every phrase begins, “With Donald Trump as your president…”

Pence also resembles a character who has escaped from a Sinclair Lewis novel, which, if you have missed them, are set in the Midwest and describe narrow-minded fundamentalist preachers, politicians, and businessmen.

In Babbitt Lewis writes: “There’s no stronger bulwark of sound conservatism than the evangelical church, and no better place to make friends who’ll help you to gain your rightful place in the community than in your own church-home!”

Pence Mails In His 2020 Vote

Pretty early on in this debate, I came to the conclusion that Pence has written off a win in 2020 and that his only shot at redemption is to position himself for the nomination in 2024.

The biggest tell, as they say at poker tournaments, was when he said, “So let me just say, I think we’re going to win this election,” while shaking his head “no”.

Based only on C-Span observations, my sense is that Mother Pence is disgusted with the Trump reality show and wants Mike out of the den of iniquity and back to leading Bible study classes in Indiana.

Led into the temptations of power, Pence, however, would love to think of himself as Trump’s political heir. But when you bet on an inheritance, you often wind up paying for the funeral.

Are You Ready for a Foreign Affair?

What surprised me about Kamala Harris was how little feel she has for world politics. I figured that as a fact-finding senator she might have picked up some vibe about Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, or Transnistria, but apparently she has not.

Harris’s background is as a career prosecutor, first in the office of the district attorney for San Francisco and later as attorney general for California, which may explain why during the debate she kept referring to “dead bodies” from the virus. Maybe it’s a CSI expression?

During the ninety minutes of this debate, Harris said almost nothing about foreign affairs other than “I serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee where I’ve been in regular receipt of classified information about threats to our nation in hotspots around the world. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve met with our soldiers in war zones.” When she spoke about China, I got the feeling that she was reading from CliffsNotes.

During the debate Harris curried favor with her boss by passing on the nugget that Joe’s one great truth about foreign affairs is that it’s “about relationships”, making international politics sound more like Ashley than James Madison. (“Mature imperial power seeks good safe menace in the Middle East for movies, concerts, and to try out Pentagon hardware….”) Otherwise Harris’s world views seem lifted from a Davos handout.

Harris Paints the Economy By Numbers

How was it possible for Pence, speaking on behalf of Trump’s casino capitalism, to get the better of Harris when the discussion turned to economic issues?

I guess the answer is that Harris has little feel for business or economics (it’s not really a DA thing), and all she could do was to memorize some talking points and recite them, as if a Miss America contestant in the question round (“Who is the person you look up to the most?…”).

How’s this for a pageant answer: “Joe Biden’s economic plan…Moody’s, which is a reputable Wall Street firm, has said [it] will create seven million more jobs than Donald Trump’s.” (I know Moody’s blessed all that subprime debt in 2008, but it cannot be that stupid, can it?)

Unless I am missing something, Trump and Pence have reduced the American economy to a variation on some Vegas or Atlantic City spin cycle, in which the federal budget and national debt are used to launder losing hands (the cards held by most Americans) into the accounts of the syndicates that own the roulette wheels (roughly the 1%).

Yet when the debate turned to economics, Pence still managed to back Harris into the you’ll-raise-taxes corner and to paint the Green New Deal as somehow un-American, for which she only had sputtering answers.

For the benefit of swing state voters, especially in Pennsylvania, Pence turned the entire economic discussion into a referendum on fracking, stating that Biden and Harris would be coming for your wild-cat drills. Heck of job, Kamala.

Harris did take a few swings at Trump’s pathetic taxable income and net operating losses, and she chanted the mantra about creating new jobs by investing in infrastructure, but Pence quickly brushed her aside, saying:

But America, you just heard Senator Harris tell you, on day one, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes…right after a time where we’re going through a pandemic that lost 22 million jobs at the height. We’ve already added back 11.6 million jobs because we had a president who cut taxes, rolled back regulation, unleashed American energy, fought for free and fair trade and secured four trillion dollars from the Congress of the United States to give direct payments to families, [and] save 50 million jobs through the Paycheck Protection Program. We literally have spared no expense to help the American people and the American worker through this. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to raise taxes. They want to bury our economy under a two trillion dollar Green New Deal, which you were one of the original co-sponsors of in the United States Senate.

You know it’s going poorly in a debate when you have to say, as Harris did, “That is absolutely not true.” And she had to say about three times that “Joe Biden will not ban fracking.” In politics getting your opponent to issue a denial is always a winner. (Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky…”)

After some more cross-talking, Harris tried to remember her lines about China and the trade war, presumably to make a play for some farm and rustbelt votes (for whom China’s exports are a subsidized lifeline), but something got lost in translation. She said to Pence:

The president’s trade war with China. You lost that trade war. You lost it. What ended up happening is because of a so-called trade war with China, America lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs. Farmers have experienced bankruptcy because of it. We are in a manufacturing recession because of it.

Normally, in a U.S. elections, it’s the Republicans who campaign for cheap imports and free trade, while the Democrats curry favor with unions by talking up tariffs and trade protection. But in this election Biden and Harris are running as Walmart Republicans, while Trump is running from the law.

Joe Has a Plan

You would think in 2020, with the West on fire, that a discussion about climate change might favor the Democrats, but in this instance Pence succeeded in making Biden and Harris look inconsistent on the Green New Deal (Biden says he’s against it, Harris was a co-sponsor in the Senate, and both start tap-dancing at the mention of the words), which in any case, according to the vice-president, “would crush American energy, would increase the energy costs of American families in their homes, and literally would crush American jobs.”

To hear Pence tell the story, Biden and Harris want to eliminate fossil fuels, redistribute wealth, mount the electorate on eBikes, and force windmills and solar panels on just plain folks. (If only they did, except that Scranton is anthracite coal country.)

Pence added, “…the climate is changing. We’ll follow the science.” (The word “science” has taken on mystical importance in modern politics, maybe because so few in office understand it.) But he didn’t stop there and went on to make the point that it’s the free market, corporations, and “innovation” that are cleaning up the environment.

Who knew? I thought they were flooding the market with plastic bottles that take 1000 years to decompose and fleets of SUVs, which contributed 700 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from 2010 to 2018.

In response, all Harris could say is that “Joe is about saying we’re going to invest that in renewable energy, which is going to be about the creation of millions of jobs. We will achieve net zero emissions by 2050, carbon neutral by 2035. Joe has a plan…”

Maybe Joe’s plan is that black binder stage prop you see him carrying off his campaign plane, as though his entire career has been built on “the science” and not PAC money from Wilmington credit card companies.

Harris’s warm embrace of fracking and her social distancing from the Green New Deal were only part of her pivot to re-brand the Democrats as the Democratic-Republican Party (ironically, its name in the 1790s, when Thomas Jefferson founded it).

Without ever mentioning Franklin Roosevelt, John or Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren (among many others), she said:

Joe and I are particularly proud of the coalition that we’ve built around our campaign. We probably have one of the broadest coalitions of folks that you’ve ever seen in a presidential race. Of course, we have the support of Democrats, but also independents and Republicans. In fact, seven members of president George W. Bush’s cabinet are supporting our ticket. We have the support of Colin Powell, Cindy McCain, John Kasich. Over 500 generals, retired generals and former national security experts and advisors are supporting our campaign.

So much for the Trump-Pence insinuation that Harris is a fellow traveler—unless it is with the administration of George W. Bush.

The Great Oval Office Death Watch

It’s not hard for me to imagine that either Pence or Harris one day will be president, although I cannot see either of them getting into office through the popular vote. Succession would seem to be the more probable route.

Neither strikes me as having, as was said of Franklin Roosevelt, “a first class temperament.” (The full quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes was that FDR had “a second class intellect, but a first class temperament.”) Both are hard-wired, calculating and humorless.

Pence also has the soul of a footman, while Harris speaks as though the entire electorate were bored members of a homicide jury (and maybe they are).

In terms of political lineage, Pence is descended from Richard Nixon, someone willing to say or do anything to advance his career. Pence may not have Nixon’s vindictiveness, but his evangelical embrace of Trump’s groping criminality suggests a certain suppleness to his home-spun conservative values.

Lewis wrote of George Babbitt:

“Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priests of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and senators who controlled the Republican Party decided in little smokey rooms in Washington what he would think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality.”

Harris is, likewise, hostage to the fortunes of ambition. In this presidential race, she’s Everywoman—someone who can console African-Americans or lock them in jail; someone who can march with Black Lives Matter or ride the limos of the Fortune 500; someone who can excoriate American interventionist foreign policy and still pose for selfies with troops out on the Afghan wire.

President Charles Ponzi

Pence’s path to the presidency is harder than Harris’s, even though he’s the sitting vice-president and the president, as I write, seems to be chasing the dragon around the White House.

Under several end-of-days election outcomes—some involving the presidential race being decided in the House of Representatives—Pence could remain in office past 2020, although I think he’s done once Trump is smoked out of his hole.

When the two are out of power, and Trump is exposed as the political and financial heir of Charles Ponzi, Pence will be seen as having driven one of the getaway cars, which cannot help his chances in 2024.

Assuming Biden is elected president, Kamala Harris would have two good chances to move to the top job: one is as the vice-president of a 78-year-old pre-existing condition who seems to be shrinking before our eyes. (Is it just me or does he seem diminished in press pictures these days, a little old man in a baseball cap?)

The other way forward for her is through the Democratic nomination in 2024, when the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will be out of the picture, although on her own in 2020 Harris was a Two Percenter.

And if a Biden presidency has the feel of an extended Irish wake—think of Woodrow Wilson’s last year in office—Harris would share blame as one of the pallbearers who delivered the “body” to the White House.

Harris Walks a Thin Blue Line

Harris used up some of the question and answer time over the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to clean up her Personnel file. She tried to erase the impression that, as the San Francisco DA, she was vigorous in locking up every street pharmacist selling a little cheeba, and would like everyone forget that in 2010 she campaigned against legalizing the personal use of marijuana. She said: “We will, on the issue of criminal justice reform, get rid of private prisons and cash bail and we will decriminalize marijuana.”

When it was his turn to speak about criminal justice, Pence waved the flag over the thin blue line (“And I want everyone to know who puts on the uniform of law enforcement every day, President Trump and I stand with you…”) and Swift-boated, so to speak, the liberal ex-prosecutor Harris for having failed to support a Senate bill on police reform.

In turn Harris rounded on Pence (“I will not sit here and be lectured by the Vice President on what it means to enforce the laws of our country….the only one on this stage, who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide…”), but the exchange dug at the Achilles’ heel of Harris’s political persona, which vacillates between Inspector Harry Callahan (“Go ahead. Make my day…”) and family advisor Al Sharpton.

The Supremacist Court and People of Praise

As a U.S. senator, Harris sits prominently on the judiciary committee—her bully pulpit so to speak. At the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, she was a flagellant in the agonies of Christine Blasey Ford (more so than she now buys into the confessions of Tara Reade).

Presumably the Democrats want Harris to headline the Senate opposition to Amy Coney Barrett, although something tells me that some besotted Democratic senators may have caved in after Amy’s blue-dress charm offensive.

In opposing the Barrett confirmation, Harris slipped in a little homily from the life of saint Abraham Lincoln, saying that he had delayed nominating a Supreme Court justice until after the 1864 election. But she invented the quote (“But Honest Abe said it was not the right thing to do…”) and ignored the fact that Lincoln nominated Salmon Chase to the court just after the election. (In his way, Kentucky lawyer Lincoln was as wily as Kentucky Senator McConnell.)

Instead of calling Lincoln as a character witness, Pence flipped the tables on the Democrats for opposing the Barrett confirmation timetable (before the election) and asked Harris: “People…are voting right now. They’d like to know if you and Joe Biden are going to pack the Supreme Court if you don’t get your way in this nomination.”

It led to a concise Pence argument (court packing as a political sin worse than rushing through the Barrett nomination) that seemed to catch Harris off-guard, although Biden himself has repeatedly waffled in answering the court-packing question. The vice-president said:

You know the people deserve a straight answer, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, the straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election. Men and women, I got to tell you people across this country, if you cherish our Supreme Court, if you cherish the separation of powers, you need to reject the Biden Harris ticket come November the third, reelect President Donald Trump, and we’ll stand by that separation powers in a nine seats Supreme Court.

Point to Pence, but just as Harris stumbled over the Supreme Court exchange, the vice-president had no cogent answers (he mumbled, “No. Not true…”) for why Donald Trump is endlessly fawning over white supremacists. It led to Harris’s strongest pitch of the night, when she said:

And the reality of this is that we are talking about an election in 27 days where last week the President of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists….And it wasn’t like he didn’t have a chance. He didn’t do it. And then he doubled down. And then he said, when pressed, “Stand back, stand by.” And this is a part of a pattern of Donald Trump’s. He called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He instituted as his first act, a Muslim ban. He…on the issue of Charlottesville, where people were peacefully protesting the need for racial justice, where a young woman was killed. And on the other side, there were neo-Nazis carrying Tiki torches, shouting racial epithets, anti-Semitic slurs. And Donald Trump when asked about it said, “There were fine people on both sides.” This is who we have as the President of the United States and America, you deserve better.

In this campaign Harris should be prosecuting Trump but instead Biden’s handlers have her talking about job creation and China.

The Last Temptation of Donald Trump

The vice-presidential debate ended, as did the presidential debate the week before, on the simple question of whether, if Trump loses, he will “accept the outcome of the election” and leave office without the assistance of handcuffs or a taser.

From what Pence said—adding to what Trump said and didn’t say the week before—the answer is “no.” As Trump did, Pence went off on the Democrats for attempting “to overturn the results of the last election.” He said:

I mean, there were documents released this week that the CIA actually made a referral to the FBI, documenting that those allegations were coming from the Hillary Clinton campaign. And of course, we’ve all seen the avalanche, what you put the country through for the better part of three years, until it was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion, case closed. And then Senator Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call. And now Hillary Clinton has actually said to Joe Biden that, in her words, under no circumstances, should he concede the election.

It was only after the vice-presidential debate that Trump publicly, more than once, called for the arrests of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden, which borrows directly from the plot of another Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist takeover of America after the 1936 election. In the novel Lewis writes:

“More and more, as I think about history,” he pondered, “I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”

Unfortunately, it has already “happened here”.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.