The Story of the Veep Debate: A Fly and Some Mansplaining

GELFAND’S WORLD--Author Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay called “Men explain things to me.”

The title is brilliant satire. In the essay, she recounts an incident where some arrogant fellow tried to explain the importance of her own work to her. This, in spite of a friend of hers repeatedly trying to explain that Rebecca was in fact the author of the book he was touting. The essay was responsible for popularizing the term “mansplaining,” which speaks for itself. 

One interesting characteristic of last night’s Vice Presidential debate was how easily Mike Pence fell into that practice of mansplaining. Apparently a lot of women viewers picked up on it, as the polling data (reported below) shows. The other interesting characteristic was that Kamala Harris didn’t allow herself to be bothered or browbeaten. In fact, she made use of a talent I have remarked upon before (way back in the Democratic primary debates) – she said that she was speaking, kind of in the tone of a loving mother calling the children to attention, and it worked. She has an innate quality of leadership that induces people to shut up and listen. If you are looking for it, it is impressive to watch. 

Meanwhile, a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head and stayed there for two whole minutes. I didn’t notice, but apparently a lot of viewers who have access to Twitter did, and they made it a prime time observation. They measured the length of time of that fly visit and shared it with each other on Twitter. It’s now the story of Mike Pence’s life. 

At one level, you’ve got to sympathize with Pence. Here he had to go home after the event thinking, “I spent years becoming a governor, serving as Vice President, and doing three long prep sessions for this debate, and the one thing I am going to be remembered for is that fly.” All this is true, but it represents, I think, the way the public glom onto a symbol that represents a negative aspect of someone’s character. 

The classic example of this was President Gerald Ford, who once had a fall on an airplane ramp. Now in reality, Ford was probably the most athletic of all American presidents, having played both ways for the national championship Michigan football team, and having even been offered a chance to play on the professional level. But Ford was also slow talking and seemingly a bit clumsy in thought, and the image of physical clumsiness became the surrogate for his mental abilities. 

So if Mike Pence is finally remembered for being fly food, it will be the surrogate image for his insensitivity to women’s issues or even his disdain for the truth in general. 

The way one question was really meant 

The moderator could have asked this of the Vice Presidential candidates, but was too polite to phrase it this way: “One or the other of you could be president a year from now. Have you discussed this with your presidential candidates?” The moderator, Susan Page (USA Today), asked Kamala Harris a slightly more indirect version, but it would have been fair to ask a straightforward question, because the U.S. presidency is known for being a remarkably stressful job (at least if you take it seriously) and both candidates have at least some level of increased risk of being disabled or even dying from the corona virus. But the moderator’s question was merely an inquiry as to whether they had had a discussion about succession. 

Harris responded largely with what sounded like a campaign speech about what a great candidate (and future president) Joe Biden will be. But what we didn’t hear was what kind of a president Kamala Harris would be. 

Overall impressions 

In the (small) group where I was watching, there was some disappointment in the Harris performance. Personally, I was hoping that she would at least remark on the fact that Pence was chronically violating the debate’s agreed-upon rules by continuing to talk even when his time was called. “Thank you Mr. Vice President” said the moderator each time he ran over, but he kept going. It was up to Harris to point this out, even in her polite style, and she did not. 

She coped with it by showing a variety of facial expressions, but never delivered the classic Lloyd Bentson skewering of Dan Quayle (“Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and you are no Jack Kennedy”). 

The other failure on Harris’ part was in dealing with Pence’s chronic lying. It took a post-debate column by Phillip Bump (“All honest politicians are the same. Each member of Trump’s ticket is dishonest in his own way.”) to make the record. Television commenters suggested that there would be lots of fact checking on the Pence performance, but just as in last week’s debate, the effect is in the moment, not in the post-mortem. 

CBS pointed out that Pence interrupted twice as often as Harris, and that this would not play well with suburban women. I’m not sure why this focus on suburban women other than that pollsters have concentrated on how this demographic is shifting its politics. How about that it should be taken as obnoxious by everybody? 

One other commenter pointed out that Trump and Pence went into this debate trailing, and they needed a better result than they got. Basically, Pence worked to his side of the aisle, and that was that. He pointedly defended the administration’s pro-life position, in spite of the fact that a majority of the American people hold positions to the contrary. 

Pence was condescending and frankly untruthful when he complained that Harris was playing politics with peoples’ lives in rejecting anything Trump says about a new vaccine. This was a remarkable bit of hypocrisy, and I think that it was the one moment where Pence may have really gone over the line. I think people recognize phony outrage in politicians. 

All in all, it was another 90 minutes that I won’t get back, and with a bit of luck, won’t have any effect on what is shaping up to be a substantial Biden – Harris victory. For the Democrats, the goal was not to lose big. For the Republicans, the goal should have been to win big, but it is not obvious in retrospect what the real goal was. Playing to your base – particularly when you are way behind with less than a month to go – is not a really good political strategy. 

There was one question that came up near the end that was a bit awkwardly phrased. Pence was asked -- assuming Roe v. Wade is overturned –  what he would want his home state of Indiana to do in response. Obviously he would want a strong prohibition, but he didn’t go there. 

When Harris was asked the same question, she had an obvious answer available, because California has long had a law which makes abortion legal up to fetal viability. She could have explained this (as former Attorney General she obviously would know) but instead made a general statement about her party being pro-choice. 

As an admittedly biased viewer, I scored the debate as about even. I understand that Pence distorted reality numerous times, but he didn’t get called on it often enough, and seemed to get away with it in the sense that the moderator didn’t start screaming at him. 

But I seem to have been wrong in that impression, because CNN’s first post-debate poll gave the win to Kamala by the remarkable margin of 58 to 39. Not so remarkably (and a partial explanation for my wrong guess) was that men on average scored it a tie, but the women who were surveyed scored it for Harris by 69 – 30. That’s a horrible margin to lose by if you are the Trump – Pence campaign. I would guess that at least some of that huge margin is attributable to the fact that Pence spent most of his time defending Trump, and this by itself would be a difficult pill for women viewers to swallow. 

The latest polls and the president’s weird behavior 

The website fivethirtyeight.com has a page with a report of the latest polls. It’s been gratifying to follow the evolution of Biden’s numbers and the descent of Trump’s. The website has generally been careful in its predictions compared to some other sites (e.g.: the Economist already gave Biden a 90% chance of victory). Things can change pretty rapidly in the weeks before an election has been their reasoning so far. The other is the obvious reticence that any pollster ought to feel after the 2016 debacle. But as the days go by and the polls only get better for Biden, both nationally and in key swing states, the odds of a Biden-Harris victory are getting pretty strong. As of this writing, Trump’s chance of victory has fallen below 20% and Biden’s has risen above 80%. 

Remarkably, considering the results of the November, 2016 elections which gave the whole government to the Republicans, the odds right now favor a completely Democratic government as of January 20, 2021. It’s not a huge probability (in the 60 percent range), but it mainly depends on the Democrats turning enough senate seats. It’s that probability which drives all those questions (phrased as taunts) about whether Joe Biden will promise to support continuation of the senate filibuster and promise not to increase the size of the Supreme Court. Paradoxically, by continuing to ask the question, the Republicans are putting court packing squarely within the realm of public discourse. Pundits like to call this “moving the Overton window,” and the Republicans are doing this. In the world of soccer, this is referred to as an “own goal.” 

Trump continues to bluster, even as he gasps and postures. It doesn’t seem to be helping with the voters. The likely explanation is that Trump has no real sense of how people respond to his behavior, his expression, and his speech. The conventional term that describes this kind of behavior is “tone deaf,” but Trump’s current level goes beyond that description. It’s actively weird. It’s possible that Trump himself didn’t think of how his balcony posturing (when he returned to the White House) would be reminiscent of Benito Mussolini, but somebody should have warned him. At least he might have avoided repeating the whole performance for the cameras. 

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign, in discussing possible rearrangements of the presidential debate schedule, referred to the president’s “erratic behavior” and “ever changing whims.” 

Then, in Wednesday’s PR stunt, Trump told the cameras that his Covid-19 attack was a “blessing from God.” He resorted to “blessing in disguise” language and then appeared to take credit for recent knowledge about therapeutics and the ongoing development of a vaccine. Yeah, sure, he was the one who was pipetting into all those test tubes all these months. Maybe he should be lobbying for the Nobel Prize in Medicine instead of the Peace Prize.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)



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