US vice-presidential debate: Kamala Harris faces an opponent not constrained by the truth

Mike Pence was calmer and more decorous than Trump, but no more connected to the reality of his record in government.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Ahead of the vice-presidential debate, I wrote, "Pence also has the advantage that his campaign does not seem to be constrained by or even interested in facts." And indeed, Vice-President Mike Pence was not especially interested in facts (he twice said that his opponent Kamala Harris was entitled to her own opinions, not her own facts), or in answering the question he had been asked. He opened a response to a question on abortion with a discussion of the killing of the Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani. He lied about what Democratic candidate Joe Biden's platform is. He wildly misrepresented President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic, and indeed his own handling of the pandemic, since he is in charge of the White House's coronavirus task force. 

Nor did Pence did not offer a full-throated defence of the Trump administrationInstead, he offered a vision of a world in which the president leapt into action against Covid-19 and argued that health experts had warned to expect over 200,000 deaths. His answers often did not correspond to the questions asked or to the amount of time allotted. He spoke in a calmer, straighter voice than Trump did, and he interrupted less (though on a few occasions Harris did have to remind him, "I'm speaking"). But he showed a similar disdain for grounding answers in reality. 

That was the main takeaway of the debate. But there were others, too.

In the remaining weeks, we can expect Trump and Pence to attack Biden and Harris as being left wing. We probably could have expected that without this debate, but it was certainly one of Pence's themes for the night. He accused Biden and Harris of supporting a ban on fracking (Harris assured Americans, who were seemingly imagined by both candidates to be extremely pro-fracking, that they will not). And of planning to raise taxes across the board (as opposed to on those Americans who make over $400,000). He cited Harris's liberal voting record.

Whether this will work – this idea that Harris is to the left of Senator Bernie Sanders, an idea that Pence floated tonight – and convince Americans that Trump and Pence are the moderate choice remains to be seen. That Biden is the candidate does not mean Trump will not behave as if Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren, or even Harris herself, is at the top of the ticket.

We are also likely to see more of Harris and Biden telling Americans to vote, and Trump and Pence casting aspersions on the voting process

The fact that we're asking a version of "what will we do if the president doesn't accept the result" is jarring, even if we are having that discussion in our indoor voices. Harris's response last night was that Americans need to get out and vote. This is the smart political answer; yet it also downplays the reality that voter intimidation works, that closing polling stations works, and that sowing doubt about the security of mail-in ballots and the legitimacy of the election could very well work, too. Pence, meanwhile, took a cue from his president and spoke about intelligence agencies surveilling the Trump campaign and also alleged that Democrats had been trying to overturn the election results since the presidential election of 2016. He added that he thought he and Trump would win. 

[see also: Donald Trump has declared war on US democracy. Can he be stopped?]

In sum, this night was a simulation of normal politics by Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, hours after Trump made a video promising that the experimental drug he was given for Covid-19 would soon be available to all. 

See the New Statesman's election poll tracker for the latest on the presidential race.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

Free trial CSS