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Review: Kamala Harris’ sterling debate was for every woman who’s been talked over by a man

Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence on the debate stage
Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence participate in Wednesday’s vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City.
(Getty Images)

Kamala Harris’ courtroom skills prevailed, Mike Pence’s bloodshot eye astounded, and a fly stole the show Wednesday night during the first and only vice presidential debate of 2020.

Following one of the most extraordinarily turbulent weeks in the history of U.S. politics and the presidency, the California senator and sitting vice president met at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and tried to achieve the impossible in Trumpian times: discussing policy in a civil manner.

Seated 12 feet apart, separated by two plexiglass shields and markedly different worldviews, the diametrically opposed candidates answered questions posed by the moderator and Washington bureau chief for USA Today, Susan Page.

“We want a debate that is lively, but Americans also deserve a discussion that is civil and about the big issues facing our nation,” said Page at the top of the broadcast, though she likely planned for much worse given the catastrophe that was last week’s presidential debate.

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What she got instead was the most normal political function we’d seen since disrupting custom and flouting the Constitution became the norm at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the time-honored Washington tradition of male candidates treating their female opponents like subordinates, and men dismissing women in boardrooms and office cubicles across the country, Pence continually interrupted Harris, stepping on her time and steamrolling through Page in the process.

As Donald Trump and Joe Biden try to sway the rapidly vanishing “undecided voter,” 2020 is the year the presidential debates become pure TV spectacle.

Kamala Harris and Mike Pence
Kamala Harris and Mike Pence
(Associated Press)
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But Harris was having none of that.

“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” Harris said repeatedly, stopping him in his tracks when Page’s ineffectual thank yous to Pence could not do the job. At one point, Harris explicitly demanded that she be given equal time after yet another of Pence’s successful attempts to filibuster past the two-minute time limit.

Pence’s tone was calm and reasonable in comparison to his boss’ bullhorn offensive last week, but Harris still had to walk the same impossible line Hillary Clinton did in 2016 when she ran against Donald Trump.

California’s former attorney general had to outmaneuver Pence and contend with a double standard often used against women who run for office: Don’t be too aggressive, but don’t appear weak. Act strong, but not so strong that you threaten male voters. Eviscerate him, but don’t be a bitch. And whatever happens, don’t forget to smile!

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Harris, the first Black woman and South Asian to be nominated on a major party ticket, sailed through the debate with aplomb. A skilled cross-examiner, she nailed Pence — the head of the administration’s pandemic task force — on the White House’s appalling COVID-19 response, threw Trump’s $750 tax payment in the vice president’s lap, asked why the president had refused to condemn white supremacy, and flatly refused to partake in Pence’s flat-Earth notion that climate change isn’t a real threat.

“You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts,” Pence said repeatedly to Harris, plagiarizing the line from former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to deflect the Trump administration’s own slippery relationship with the facts.

As with most everything about his presidency, Donald Trump’s diagnosis with COVID-19 and transfer to Walter Reed hospital was both unprecedented and surreal.

A fly rests on the head of Vice President Mike Pence
A fly rests on the head of Vice President Mike Pence during the debate against Sen. Kamala Harris.
(Associated Press)
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He was still and composed, perhaps in an effort to convey stability while Trump rage-tweeted back at the COVID-plagued White House. But Pence already looked beat down when he arrived on stage.

Social media ran wild with theories about his condition, positing that he might become the next person in Trump’s orbit to test positive for the coronavirus, or teeing up jokes about “The Walking Dead” and untested vaccines.

Pence was so still, in fact, that a single fly landed on his white hair and sat there for a good two minutes, uninterrupted. Before the debate was through, the fly ended up with its own Twitter account, accolades from political pundits and a place in the annals of American debate history, somewhere between Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and Paul Ryan’s incessant gulping of water while debating Joe Biden in 2012.

What differentiated this face-off, of course, was the fact that the debate took place “on a night when there’s crime scene tape around the White House,” as CNN’s Anderson Cooper said moments before the 90-minute event streamed live and commercial-free across multiple networks and platforms.

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At least 27 people in Trump’s circle had tested positive for the coronavirus by Wednesday night, including the president, who announced he had COVID-19 early last Friday. He was subsequently airlifted to the hospital, where he spent three mysterious days before returning to the White House and proclaiming that Americans should not be scared of the disease despite the medical science and 210,000 dead Americans that tell us otherwise.

But during Wednesday’s debate, when Pence tried to claim the pandemic was under control and that Trump had done a great job protecting Americans, Harris was ready with a rebuttal.

The pandemic is not turning a corner, she argued, and the administration did not protect the people they vowed to serve. “The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it. They still don’t have a plan,” she said. “This administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this.”

No matter how many times he “politely” talked over her, patronized, offered prayers instead of factual policy or allowed a fly (not Harris) uninterrupted time on stage, Pence still left the debate as an embattled member of an imploding administration. Harris left the victor.


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