Because television is a visual medium, what is seen often registers more vividly than what is said. From prestige dramas to reality-show schlock, TV relies on character contrasts, the sharper the better. Much the same is true of politics, whose practitioners like to speak of the importance of “optics.”
Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris was a study in contrasts that went well beyond their parties and positions. It may not have been riveting television, but it was revealing television.
The most significant difference, of course, was built into the evening from the start. History was made by the simple act of Harris, the first woman of color on a major-party ticket, sharing a stage (from a distance of 12 feet) with Pence. Another welcome, impossible-to-miss distinction was the evening’s civility compared with last week’s demolition derby masquerading as a presidential debate, which featured President Trump in full bully mode against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. CNN anchor Jake Tapper spoke for many viewers after the Pence-Harris clash when he described it as “a normal debate . . . not an emotionally abusive session with someone who was a little unhinged.”
But the contrasts went beyond that. Appearing on a split-screen, with occasional cutaway shots of the plexiglass dividers that underscored the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the debate, Pence and Harris projected strikingly different personas and styles of communicating with voters. Harris was more effective because she demonstrated a surer understanding of how to use television.
The medium’s mass audience notwithstanding, it’s possible to create the illusion of a one-on-one intimacy, and that’s what Harris strove to do. She frequently looked straight into the camera and spoke directly to the viewers at home, maintaining a conversational tone, at one point even addressing them as “guys” during a discussion of the Iran nuclear deal. Viewers also respond favorably to TV performers who seem comfortable with the medium, and Harris seemed utterly at home under the camera’s gaze.
An unsmiling Pence, meanwhile, more often registered as a loyal soldier discharging a grim duty. The vice president did project more decency, empathy, and manners than President Trump — not a high bar — and also a measure of gravitas (undercut near the end of the debate when a fly made a cameo appearance on his head).
Crucially, Harris remained free of Senate-speak and framed her pitch to voters in personal terms, unlike many from the upper chamber who lapse into the Capitol Hill vernacular of bills and amendments and committee assignments when they run for higher office. Nothing wearies viewers and voters more than politicians who can’t go three words without “I” or “me,” so it was notable how often Harris took pains to incorporate the second-person pronoun “you” into her remarks, helping viewers see themselves in the complex policy issues under discussion.
When she spoke of the Trump administration’s attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, Harris warned “If you have a preexisting condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you.” When she contended that the administration was not forthcoming with truthful information in the early days of the pandemic, she framed it as: “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” later saying that Americans would have been better able to protect themselves “if you had, as a parent, if you had as a worker” full information.
In Pence’s 2016 debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, the Republican often shook his head sorrowfully as Kaine was speaking, as if he couldn’t believe anyone would say such mean things about Donald Trump. Pence tried that tactic again last night, but a pose of injured innocence is less persuasive when you’re the head of the White House coronavirus task force and more than 210,000 American lives have been lost due to a deadly pandemic, with more than 7 million infected.
For any running mate, debates are a rare moment when they alone can claim the spotlight. The position of vice president is a contradictory one: a heartbeat away from the presidency but also subject to a certain disdain. That caricature of the vice presidency as a powerless dead end provided a running gag in the first season of HBO’s “Veep,” which starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus as politically maladroit vice president Selina Meyer. Time and again, Meyer would anxiously ask her secretary: “Sue, did the president call?” Perhaps to subtly emphasize that she would be an equal partner with Biden, Harris constantly referred to her running mate as “Joe” on Wednesday night (”The one thing we know about Joe is he puts it all out there”), in contrast to Pence’s reverent invocation of “President Trump’s leadership.”
She projected a down-to-earth air; when moderator Susan Page inadvertently began one question by addressing her as Kamala Harris rather than Senator Harris, she smiled broadly and said: “That’s fine, I’m Kamala.”
Wednesday’s debate format was solid: nine segments of roughly 10 minutes each, grouped into subject areas including the economy, climate change, and the Supreme Court. But Page let Pence off the hook when he dodged her most important question: Whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he and Trump lose. Which Trump has refused to do.
Page proved unable to enforce time limits, failing to prevent Pence in particular from continuing to speak after she said his time was up, with Pence repeatedly ignoring the moderator’s “Thank you, Mr. Vice President.” Note to debate organizers: Fix this. Fair play demands that you figure out a way to enforce time limits, for real. Meanwhile, the optics during such moments Wednesday night — one man onstage with two women, and the man conveying an air of entitlement — seemed unlikely to do much to help the Republican Party close the gender gap.
Harris was firm in dealing with attempted interruptions by Pence. Even then, she remained in a colloquial vein, saying at one point: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation, OK?”
To a degree, they did. But the most important conversation in any televised debate is the one that candidates have with the viewers. On that score, Harris came out ahead.