In retrospect, this does seem a bit curious. Donald Trump and Joe Biden went it it tooth and nail over race relations in last week’s debate, and the controversy over the exchanges lasted a few days later. With Kamala Harris facing off against Mike Pence last night, Maya King writes, the expectation of fireworks over policing, protests, riots, and systemic racism went even higher than before last week’s debate.
Instead, that issue barely registered, King points out while wondering why:
Though Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris argued — briefly — about the legacy of systemic racism, the topic was overshadowed by the coronavirus, the economy and health care. President Donald Trump’s refusal last week to disavow white supremacists during the first presidential debate — the major flashpoint of the evening — earned only a glancing mention from the vice presidential candidates.
Late in the debate, moderator Susan Page introduced the topic, invoking the summer’s most high-profile cases of police brutality, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two African Americans killed by police. But there wasn’t a robust discussion of racism in America despite protests cropping up around the country.
Page might have introduced it “late” because she assumed one side or the other would raise it themselves. Trump and Pence have not been shy about proclaiming law and order as a major campaign theme, just as Biden and Harris have vocally supported Black Lives Matter protesters and demanded policing reforms. As we repeatedly saw last night, neither Pence nor Harris felt particularly constrained to answer the questions Page asked last night. So why did both sides need a nudge?
Based on what transpired, it looks like both campaigns have rethought their positions and reassessed their vulnerabilities. Pence did a good job defending Trump against the Charlottesville smear, reminding everyone that Trump’s “good people on both sides” statement referred to the controversy over monuments, not over white supremacy. It’s still a defensive position, however. Meanwhile, Harris’ talk about “peaceful protests” is essentially a non-sequitur; no one’s worried about peaceful protests — they’re worried about spiking crime and riots, which were teeing up in Wauwatosa last night as the debate took place. Riots, looting, and crime are the clear context now, and Team Biden doesn’t want to link itself to those, for obvious reasons.
But perhaps the answer for last night was even simpler. When the topic did come up, Pence wiped the floor with Harris over it, especially when she raised her record as Attorney General in California to make the argument:
As soon as Harris raised this part of her resumé, I tweeted that Pence was already locked and loaded. Pence knew Harris’ record better than Harris did, and ended up demolishing every single aspect of her argument. Democrats usually have the race-relations debate all to themselves, but when a Republican shows up prepared for the argument, it doesn’t play nearly as well. Trump didn’t prepare well for the issue in last week’s debate; Pence clearly did for this one.
That brings us to a couple of more “tells” Harris and the Left are displaying after this debate and this exchange in particular. Harris started out by proclaiming that “I will not be lectured,” a phrase she repeated during the debate, apparently missing the facts that (a) debates are about laying out arguments and defending against other arguments, and (b) Harris was doing plenty of lecturing herself on stage. That’s a tell that Harris felt that she was getting the worst of the exchange and felt as though she had to delegitimize even the idea of opposing what she said.
Worse yet are the “mansplaining” complaints from Harris’ defenders, which practically admit that Harris got the worst of it last night. This patronizing excuse assumes that women who make it to the top of the heap in politics are somehow disadvantaged in debates to the point where men have to be constrained from presenting arguments at all. If that’s feminism, it’s a strangely Victorian strain of it; should Pence have kept silent all night, with a vial of smelling salts just in case Harris fainted on the stage from the vapors?
These are all tells for what clearly turned out to be a less-than-stellar debate performance from Harris. That’s not a surprise, either, as Harris had a whole string of less-than-stellar debate performances in 2019 before flaming out early in the primary cycle. And it might be that the Biden campaign strategized away from race relations in this debate because they worried that Harris couldn’t execute on it well enough to win — and if so, that was a smart decision.