Anything would have been better than the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. So, Wednesday night s vice presidential debate, in some respects, had a lower bar to clear.But from the perspective of a debate coach (which I am) evaluating how well the candidates accomplished this, there was still a lot to work with here. I ll take Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence one at a time using two main categories: defending the top of your ticket while attacking the other and proving your capability to lead our nation. I ll close with a grade for moderator Susan Page.
Defending the top of your ticket, attacking the top of theirs:
Harris let Pence get her off track too often by taking his bait and talking about topics he, not the moderator, originated. I coach my teams to always debate on our ground, not the other team s. While Harris adequately defended Biden (actually better than he defended himself in many of the primary debates) -- on climate change and his economic plan, for example -- she still lost focus a bit too often. However, this was the only major flaw in her performance.
For a debate coach, there was much to love in her speech about foreign policy being like relationships. I teach interpersonal communication and I use the inverse analogy: that the international relations concept of "threat construction" is true in interpersonal communication. That is, if you treat someone like an enemy, they often become that enemy, causing a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fact that Harris used a similar analogy to attack Trump s foreign policy was gratifying -- and an effective passage in her answer to a question on the role of the US in global leadership. Harris asserted that in relationships you should be loyal to your friends, but that Trump has "betrayed our friends and embraced dictators." Her example of our own allies respecting China s Xi Jinping more than they do the Commander in Chief of the United States was a breathtakingly potent argument against the President.
Proving your capability to become president:
In a long campaign season, this was Harris best debate yet. Last year, she gained attention by attacking Biden in an early primary debate, but that multi-candidate encounter didn t have the depth of a two-person affair. Plus, Harris was unable to sustain the bounce for her primary campaign after that one excellent performance.Last night, time and again, I thought Harris conveyed an absolutely presidential form in her answers and her demeanor. As a speech teacher, I gave her points for personality and appreciated how she showed complex emotions in her expressions while bringing a dignified deportment.
Beyond that, Harris actually answered most of the questions. In this, the contrast with Pence was sharp. Harris didn t shy away from her record as the Attorney General of California (in fact, she came back strongly at her adversary when he challenged her on this), her readiness as a leader or her foreign policy experience.
Overall grade for Harris:
Defending the top of your ticket, attacking the top of theirs
Pence did a nice job of hitting Biden on issues important to Trump s base. The President s Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, his moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on his watch and Pence s law enforcement remarks were all right down the middle for Trump s supporters. Over and over, he painted Biden as someone who will raise taxes with his social programs, dismantle the country s energy-producing infrastructure (and associated jobs) and support taxpayer funding of abortion, so overall Pence was above average in this category.
However, his defense of Trump on topics like the coronavirus and international relationships left a lot on the table.
But it was mostly Pence s failure to answer the questions that really hurt him in this category. Pence sounded exactly like Trump s physicians this week evading reporters questions outside Walter Reed National Medical Center on the President s Covid-19 infection. Like the President s doctor Dr. Sean Conley, Pence did a poor job of answering a direct question.
Proving your capability to become president:
This was part of the framing of the second topic of the evening brought up by the moderator. And Pence never answered the part of the question about how he is qualified and ready to lead the country, particularly when the inevitable issue of the President s age and affliction with coronavirus was raised. It was unbelievable for a sitting vice president to whiff on such an easy question. But he never answered it. Ironically, I gave Pence much higher marks four years ago in this very category.Let me make this clear: You cannot lie and win debates. This fact "trumps" all other categories. That Pence had blatantly lied about issues like Trump s so-far nonexistent health care plan and protections for preexisting conditions and then breathlessly followed his own falsehood with a version of the famous quote, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts," was outrageous.
Indeed, that quote is from the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who is currently rolling over in his grave. "Stop playing politics with people s lives" when talking about the pandemic was another line Pence took straight from the upside-down world.
Debate is not about telling "believable sounding" lies. You fail a debate if you lie, no matter how well you deliver the stolen goods.
Overall grade for Pence:
Moderator Susan Page:
Just because the debate didn t create chaos doesn t mean it was a success. Page had an easier job with these two than Chris Wallace had moderating the first presidential debate, but she failed in it nonetheless. She committed three basic Moderating 101 mistakes:
First, Page failed to make Pence answer the questions she asked.
Second, Page failed in her main job: truth seeking. Make the debaters prove their claims. Asking simple follow up questions, such as "can you list examples to prove your point" or "what proof do you have for that claim," is so easy. Not even the most partisan viewer should have a reasonable objection to that line of questioning.
Finally, Page let Pence interrupt too much (while ignoring her entreaties to stop) and turn the questions onto different topics, sometimes ending his responses by asking Harris a question himself.
If a moderator is going to sit out her duties for the entire debate, then it always advantages the person who excessively talks, lies, interrupts and changes the topic.