OPINION: Countdown to the 3rd: Inherent vice

Pence, Harris step into the ring; Harris falls into the Clinton trap; Pence makes an animal friend



Mike Pence represented Trump tonight, albeit in a more controlled, functional way.

JACOB HERSH, Evergreen columnist

“California über alles!

Zen fascists will control you, one hundred percent natural.

You will jog for the master race, and always wear the happy face.”

-Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles”

Hats off to the Mike Pence fly.

Politics is, without irony, a drug for those who weren’t cool enough to get offered drugs in high school (or college, for that matter.)

The best presidential debates are like mainlining heroin straight into your carotid with the hottest girl in drama club. The worst is like huffing gas behind a shuttered Arby’s with one of the guys from the local chapter of the trenchcoat mafia.

Tonight’s vice presidential debate was somewhere in between, not quite as entertaining as last week’s spectacle of debauchery, but not as limply bloodless as, say, Bush v. Gore. Wednesday evening, Trump’s vice Mike Pence and Biden’s vice Kamala Harris squared up at the University of Utah, with Susan Page, USA Today journalist and Amy Klobuchar’s long lost twin, moderating.

I’ve always understood the vice presidential job to be, as FDR’s VP John “Cactus Jack” Garner described it, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

You’re essentially left holding the president’s coattails, adjacent to power, but not quite there. Unless you’re Dick Cheney, your job is to look good at meetings, learn your lines at state dinners and spearhead initiatives that aren’t worth the president’s time, for whatever reason. But once a year, for 90 blissful minutes, you get to go out on stage and go toe-to-toe with whatever morose sycophant has been picked from the slop of national politics.

It’s like when the shelter dogs, about to be put down, get to frolic in the sun for a few minutes — make them count, Scooter, because the second this is over you’re stuck holding the door for the next four years.

It’s not a job I would want, and it’s not a job any reasonable person should want — again, unless you’re Dick Cheney.

With that said, tonight’s debate was illuminating in several respects. First, it showed what happens when the bravado and bluster and dick-measuring is taken out of the equation. It’s two profoundly bleak-looking people being asked essentially the same questions their bosses were asked the week prior.

Second, it illustrates what happens when the onus and responsibility are put on the second-in-command to clean up their bosses mess. Pence, like I argued in Wednesday’s column, needed to redeem the Trump campaign in order to pull them out of the coronavirus/violent debate hole. Polling was paramount in tonight’s debate, and it showed.

Harris, on the other hand, was sent out to be the strong woman of color in a campaign that, to this point, had been pasty, white and bordering on senility. Biden’s poor showing at last week’s debate needed to be alleviated by sending in the cavalry, someone who would be able to hold her own against the forces of the Trump campaign.

I won’t do what I did last time and go over the debate chronologically because it’d stack up much the same way. A point-by-point analysis is boring, anyhow, and I think this debate warrants a more holistic look at the candidates’ answers and, more importantly, the ways in which they responded.

Harris and Pence seemed to be significantly more collected than their predecessors, which isn’t terribly remarkable, considering the bar was as close to the ground as it could possibly be.

Kamala Harris represented Biden tonight, bringing some more vigor to a candidacy that had been lacking in energy. (COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The overall mood of the debate was also more aligned with the rules than last week’s was, though I repeat my original sentiment — the bar was on the floor.

The Plexiglas containers in which both candidates were enclosed looked an awful lot like clean rooms from “The Andromeda Strain,” or the cones of silence from the “Get Smart” movie adaptation — references which I’m sure everyone will understand and appreciate for their relevance. It was another hasty adaptation to the coronavirus that swept the White House — making me wonder if next week’s presidential debates are getting the axe. I suppose we’ll find out soon.

The issues were more of the same, with a few notable exceptions.

Fracking became a major point of contention in the last third of the debate, with both candidates expressing their support for American oil jobs. Personally, fracking’s become such a four-letter word in the past 4-to-6 years that if they’d left it alone, it wouldn’t have done them any harm — or if they’d rephrased it to “oil extraction,” or something less taboo to the average voter. It was a draw, in any case.

The Chinese trade war was also a major point for about 10-15 minutes. Pence’s rebuttal of Harris’s original non-action argument felt like a win, but only in the sense that he was able to provide some kind of concerted policy as opposed to Biden’s claims of xenophobia. Any backtracking in this political race is Death From Above.

Pence got in a few good digs about Biden’s alleged plagiarism record, claiming that the Biden climate plan was plagiarizing the Green New Deal. The GND is another one of those four-letter words that seem to separate hard-line leftists from establishment Dems.

If both candidates had left it alone and talked climate strategy purely on a party basis, then perhaps one of them might have emerged successful. That’s the way it goes, I suppose.

Harris claimed that Trump’s administration, in the COVID-19 crisis, had created the greatest failure of any administration ever, which makes for wonderful television, but it falls apart the second you do any kind of cursory investigation. Bush and Obama, in responding to the 2008 recession and financial crisis, seem to have done a whole lot worse, and that’s just in this century. Look back at LBJ’s failed “Great Society,” Nixon’s lawless ‘70s and Reagan’s Iran-Contra deal, all of which are, I would argue, on par with the failure of the Trump admin to respond to the coronavirus.

Abortion came up for a moment, and as is true to form, it became the line in the sand upon which party politics really lie. Harris supported no restrictions on abortion, while Pence came out as solidly pro-life. It was ostensibly tied to the conversation about Amy Coney Barrett, in a conversation that trod well-worn ground from last debate.

When the candidates were able to call each other on their hypocrisy was where the actual meat of the debate came into play.

Pence’s mention of Harris’s California defense attorney arrest and prosecution record for Black non-violent drug offenses came too late for it to be really effective, but it rattled her nonetheless, to the extent that her only main response was “I will not be lectured,” the “because I said so” of political debates. In the context of her calls to decriminalize marijuana, it was a better hit than it would have been otherwise.

Likewise, Harris’s early “your government lied to you about the coronavirus” argument was a major point early on, especially as a way to relate to voters who do feel lied to and alienated in the wake of months of quarantine.

Indeed, that seemed to be Harris’s modus operandi in tonight’s debate — be relatable, relatable, relatable. Like Hillary Clinton before her, her strategy was to intertwine personal likability with buzzword points — “fracking,” “racial justice” and “lower taxes,” to name a few. Unlike Clinton, she was able to follow through on that goal, but not by much better than her Democratic predecessor.

I’m reminded of Christian Bale’s interview, where he was asked how he developed the character of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Bale responded that he had watched Tom Cruise appear on David Letterman, and that Cruise had this “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes.” That was Harris, and that’ll always be Harris. Buttigieg fell victim to this as well, to an extent, but where is he now? Harris’s mannerisms and intense, girlboss enthusiasm to be RELATABLE gave way to Bateman brain worms.

Pence, on the other hand, is just sort of creepy in a Hannibal Lecter sort of way. Nothing really to analyze there.

Some closing points: the Dems need to watch who they namedrop. Claiming Colin Powell as a supporter of Biden’s plan isn’t quite the sick burn they think it is, considering Powell’s less-than-stellar record on the Forever War, and adjacency to Bush’s notoriously crooked cabinet during the first days of the war.

Pence’s call for bipartisanship was semi-laughable, because, like it or not, partisanship is a proud American tradition and anyone who tries to say otherwise is selling you war bonds.

In the end, however, I’m giving it to Pence, because he was able to fundamentally come out on the side of the voter on a few key issues — the trade war with China, Biden’s tax plan, the hypocrisy of Harris’s lip service to racial justice and American manufacturing.

It wasn’t as lopsided or as entertaining a victory as last week’s display, and it was significantly less of a spectacle, but at the very least, it was a way for me to spend a Wednesday that wasn’t drinking and watching reruns of “Mad Men.”

One thing’s for sure: the inevitable shitty SNL reenactment of tonight’s bloodless display is going to be Point Number One in my suicide note.