‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ That was how Vice Admiral James Stockdale began the 1992 televised vice-presidential debate. It’s now regarded as a famous gaffe, yet Stockdale’s questions reflect the way most viewers feel about ‘veep’ debates. Who are these people? Why am I watching? Four years ago, 37 million Americans tuned in to watch now Vice President Mike Pence argue with Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Even the most ardent followers of American politics would struggle to remember a single phrase.
Last night felt different. It’s hard to claim that Pence, the Vice President, vs Kamala Harris, the running mate of former vice president Joe Biden, should be the most consequential debate of 2020. After that awful shouting match last week between Trump and Biden, however, Americans will be grateful to have heard a little discussion of substance and government policies. They’ve had so little so far from the two grumpy grandfathers vying for the White House.
As it was, the debate was a fairly flat affair. Most viewers will have turned off in hurry. Maybe we don’t actually want our politicians to do anything other than shout at each other? Pence was solid and competent — although his bloodshot eye and the fly that got stuck in his hair will be remembered longer than anything he said. Harris had some good theatrical moments, which will be played on loop on the pro-Democrat networks for at least 24 hours, but generally came across as grandiose and a little too irritable. She lost the debate, though not catastrophically.
The debate may seem significant in retrospect. In Harris and Pence, we could well be seeing the future of American politics. In four years, or less, one of the two could be President. Pence is hardly the most vivacious character — he plays straight man to the outrageous Donald — but he is already strong favorite to be the Republican party’s next presidential nominee; the keeper of the Trumpist flame. He did nothing to undermine that last night.
Also, as you may have heard, Donald Trump has Covid. There’s been a lot of speculation in recent days about a possible triggering of the 25th Amendment, which would enable the Vice President to take charge if the Commander-in-Chief becomes incapacitated. When Trump was in hospital, some feverish NeverTrumpers even urged Pence to make his move on the grounds of ‘national security’. For now, however, Trump appears to be making a swift recovery — thank you, dexamethasone — and anyway Pence would never show any outward sign of turning on his master. His loyalty may be rewarded in time.
Harris may not need to be so patient. Biden is 77 — 78 by Inauguration Day — and everybody knows he’s fading mentally. Yes, he got through the debate last week without too many senior moments. Yet the real concern should be that his fumbling performance was heralded as a sort of triumph.
Dark rumors abound. Biden’s campaign keeps calling ‘lids’ — press-pool speak for the official end of a candidate’s day — straight after breakfast. ‘Biden 2020’ feels like a shadow play; nobody wants to admit that the protagonist isn’t all there. It isn’t just right-wing Fox News hosts speculating that, were Biden to win on 3 November, and polls strongly suggest he will, he will have to give way to Kamala within two years. Many Democrats are thinking the same. By the end of 2022, America could have its first woman president. If feminism can’t win at the ballot, why not smash the patriarchal glass ceiling using an old guy’s withered head? Even if Biden does stagger through his first term, Harris, who’s only 55, would be expected to cover many of his duties and take over for the election in 2024.
Harris seems to be preparing, ever so subtly, for inauguration. She just appeared on the cover of Elle magazine in a strapping pantsuit with a hand under her chin. ‘Kamala Harris is fueled by optimism,’ said a headline. Harris revealed that her favorite greeting is not ‘Pleased to meet you’ but ‘I see you’: ‘I see you as a complete human being. At this moment in time, it is so critically important in our country for all people to be seen in their full selves, in a way that gives them the dignity they deserve.’ Whatever you say, Madame Co-President.
Harris has mastered the art of turning therapeutic Hollywood blather into political flam. ‘What I hope and pray is that we can get to a point where, through what are undoubtedly difficult conversations, we confront the real history of America,’ she said in the Elle interview, speaking about racial justice. ‘Doing it in a way that is motivated by love, but also is fully honest.’
She can be aggressive, too. Last night Kamala rattily insisted ‘I’m speaking’ when Pence made a brief attempt to interrupt her — which much of the Twittersphere saw a great moment for the sisterhood, and everyone else found a bit obnoxious. As a former public prosecutor, she enjoys tearing into politicians. The most significant moment of her own presidential campaign came in another TV debate in June last year, when she challenged Biden over his dubious record on racial matters. Some people might have thought that a mistake, given that Biden went on to win the nomination. In the Democratic party, however, calling someone bigoted is a great way to get ahead.
Did we see a softer Kamala last night? Not really. Her staff briefed everyone to expect a more Zen performance than Biden’s last week. That’s because Team Biden has found through surveys that, in this still sexist world, viewers don’t find belligerent women appealing. Senior campaign staff say, with a sorry head-shake, that Hillary Clinton could never have got away with calling Trump ‘a clown’ as Biden did. Kamala duly tried not to seem hostile, or at least tried to look as if she was trying. She didn’t quite pull off the act.
Maybe the trouble is not women, tout corps, but the women who reach the top of the greasy Democratic pole. The problem with Kamala, like Hillary, is that people don’t respond well to her. Harris’s presidential campaign had all the media hype a candidate could wish for. She bombed. Her polling was so bad she had to withdraw before the primary process began. Yet here she is in prime position to be the Commander-in-Chief after next.
Democrats will cry misogyny or possibly racism if anybody says Kamala has an annoying voice. But the reason voters don’t seem to warm to her is not necessarily because of her sex or her skin. It’s because she seems willing to say just about anything to get elected and she oozes an obnoxious West Coast sense of privilege. She’s tried to offset her earlier reputation as a zealous prosecutor of criminals with a slightly over-the-top enthusiasm for the Black Lives Matter protests. She even tweeted a link to a ‘bail fund’ to help release violent rioters from jail. Most voters find that off-putting.
Harris’s likability may be the reason she has kept a surprisingly low profile for a vice-presidential nominee, bar the odd glossy interview. Biden’s advisers may have figured out that the electorate isn’t crazy about this lady-in-waiting. Perhaps Team Biden-Harris are wary of spreading the impression that she has her eyes on a bigger prize. ‘Momala’, as Harris’s step-children call her, has been under wraps. After last night that could change. We see you, Kamala.