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Finley: Finally, a mostly civil, substantive debate

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Who’d of thought? Civility and some substance in a political debate in 2020.

Wednesday night’s vice-presidential face-off probably didn’t move the electorate one way or another, but it likely made a lot of voters wish they were watching the top of the ticket on that Utah stage instead of their lady/gentleman in waiting.

The exchanges were spirited, but respectful, despite the sharp differences between the two. In comparison to last week’s worst-in-history debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, it looked like an ecumenical service. 

It’s pointless to declare a winner; that generally depends on which way the viewer tilted going in – unless, as was the case with President Trump – one candidate completely falls apart.

Vice President Mike Pence listens as Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., makes a point during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Republican Vice President Mike Pence had a tougher job than Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris. Not only did he have to clean up the mess his boss made last week, he  had to defend an established  record that Harris was free to attack without having to address questions about her own record or that of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Harris benefited from moderator Susan Page’s lack of interest in her lock-‘em-up record as a prosecutor in California; the costs of the Democratic ticket’s expansive spending agenda; whether she supported packing the Supreme Court or the unfolding evidence that the Obama Justice Department’ did indeed try to undermine Trump’s presidency. It was Pence who asked her the toughest questions. 

For the most part, Pence did a good job of correcting distortions of Trump’s record, far better than Trump himself did in his debate. And he looked like someone who could be president if called upon.

But his penchant for answering the question he wanted rather than one that was asked and blowing through time limits became annoying. He missed opportunities to clearly state the Trump administration will not end health insurance protections for pre-existing conditions and clarify the president’s health status.

In his defense, many of moderator Susan Page’s questions leaned toward leading, from the misstatement that the United States has the world leading Covid-19 death rate to her failure to add pandemic context to the query about the economic slump. And asking Harris about the fictional scenario of Trump refusing to peacefully transfer power if he loses served the left’s favorite conspiracy theory.

Harris was effective in many of her attacks, and was diligent in keeping Biden’s name front and center. But her adoption of the tactic employed by Biden of  laughing or scowling while Pence talked was distracting. Condescension is never a good look, and certainly not presidential.

Unlike the Harris we saw during the primary debates, she didn’t pander to the left, likely figuring that vote is locked up. She even declared Biden won’t ban fracking, to which Green New Deal author Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted, “Fracking is bad actually.”

In between bouts of evasiveness, there was enough true debating to allow for a meaningful comparison of the two candidates that went beyond clever one-liners and gotcha moments. It’s been awhile since we could say that about a political debate.

The scene stealer? The fly that kept trying to land on Pence’s stark white hair. I'm waiting for Republicans to declare it a Biden campaign plant.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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Watch Finley on DPTV’s “One Detroit” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays.