Look, ho! The filibuster is alive and well, and Vice President Mike Pence used it shamelessly at key moments during Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate. In the early moments of the matchup in Salt Lake City, Pence conspicuously filled the air with words, any words, as he waited out his time answering questions he clearly didn’t want to address.
The subject was the Trump Administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and the queries from moderator Susan Page were pointed and direct: How do you explain a death toll that exceeds most other developed countries’? Why weren’t people wearing masks at the White House announcement of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination?
In response, Pence thanked the moderator. He thanked his opponent, Senator Kamala Harris. He thanked the people of Salt Lake City and the citizens of the United States of America. He mentioned that Trump banned travel from China back in February (before the botched tests, the mocking of masks and the undermining of scientists). He summoned his inner Bill Belichick and ran out the clock.
Considering everything, he looked deeply presidential.
Pence conspicuously filled the air with words, any words, as he waited out his time answering questions he clearly didn’t want to address.
This wasn’t a Twitter rant, after all, or an exercise in theatrics during a stay at Walter Reed. It was a debate — treated as such by both participants — and both Pence and Harris understood the standards of behavior expected in that arena. Part of the process is throwing punches, and part of it is knowing how to parry: To hear a question and decline to answer it directly, or start talking about another matter entirely. Pence pointedly didn’t answer a question from Page about whether he’d want abortion outlawed in Indiana. Harris evaded a direct question from Pence about whether the Democrats would try to add seats to the Supreme Court. Moderator Page didn’t force them to comply; perhaps she had her eye on the clock, too, or perhaps she had conceded that shamelessness is part of the show.
As a result, both candidates acted, most of the time, as if they were waiting to check off squares on their personal debate Bingo cards, uttering the words that would draw the most nods of agreement from their respective bases. Pence’s squares included: the Green New Deal; AOC; fracking; Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani; moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He managed to mention two people the Trump campaign had brought along to Salt Lake City: the family of Kayla Mueller, a young humanitarian aid worker murdered by ISIS in 2015; and a salon owner from Minneapolis whose business had been burned in riots. (Landing in the “Free” space was a fly that landed, then lingered, on Pence’s head.)
Part of the process is throwing punches, and part of it is knowing how to parry: To hear a question and decline to answer it directly, or start talking about another matter entirely.
Harris’s boxes included: preexisting conditions; the fact that she was born in California (to poke the eye of anyone off anyone still feeding off birther ideas); the ethnic diversity within the Democratic party; a long list of Republicans who are supporting Biden; an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln foregoing the chance to name a Supreme Court Justice when an opening on the Court came up shortly before an election. (If she noticed the fly on Pence, she said nothing.)
For much of the debate, Pence and Harris were able to maintain an illusion that they were two ordinary candidates, calmly discussing divergent philosophies about taxes, trade, the environment. When Pence would gently interrupt, Harris would give him side-eye, followed by the verbal equivalent of side-eye — “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking.” -- and Pence would quickly back down. Both of them had a powerful incentive to look reasonable and measured, after a presidential debate that felt more like a fight on the blacktop after middle school.
Two people plucked at random off Salt Lake City’s Temple Square would likely have looked more presidential than Trump and Biden did together last Tuesday. So the fact that Harris and Pence looked like practiced politicians, skilled at the art of twisting rhetoric and filling voids, felt like a win. One calm, predictable night — where the most excitement was dead air and a motionless fly — was the gift America needed from two people who might, someday, be leading the free world.