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Analysis: What we really learned from the VP Debate

By Patricia Murphy, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #local-all (CNT)

Few fireworks, fewer answers

What a luxury it was to be just a little bored by the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris Wednesday night, when the plexiglass separating the candidates and the fly on Mike Pence’s head came away as the most memorable elements of the evening.

Thanks to the absence of the fireworks like the Trump-Biden debate last week, viewers walked away with more insights than before the debate began.

The first take-away: There may be a light at the end of the tunnel for the many Americans exhausted by today’s politics of rage and wrecking balls. As of now, Pence and Harris are the futures of their parties. One of the two will be in the White House in January and both are certain to run for president again, so get used to more of these ho-hum, practiced presentations.

The two disagreed on nearly every point, from climate to courts to vaccines and viruses, but they made their point respectfully and with dignity. When Pence constantly spoke over Harris again and again, she smiled and paused, “I’m speaking, I’m speaking…okay…I’m speaking.’

When Harris accused Pence of covering up COVID, and even outright racism, he just nodded no and dusted off the line from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Senator, you’re entitled to your opinion, but not to your own facts.”

Were these zingers? No. And thank goodness for it, because the calm demeanors left enough oxygen for the next takeaway– that we always learn more from the questions candidates avoid, not the answers they’re eager to give. Any topic avoided by a politician is the exact place voters needed to dig deeper.

For Harris, that meant a studious effort not to discuss the future number of justices Democrats want to see on the Supreme Court, which Republicans warn Democrats will “pack” by adding two liberal justices for an upper hand in future decisions.

“Let’s talk about packing,” she began. “Yeah. Let’s talk about packing the court then,” before accusing Republicans of loading lower courts with overwhelmingly white judges during the Trump years. “You want to talk about packing a court? Let’s have that discussion.”

Pence did more than his fair share of ducking and dodging, too. On the crucial question of the future of Roe v. Wade and abortion rights, Pence took a hard U-turn. “Well, thank you for the question,” he said to moderator Susan Page. “I’ll use a little bit of my time to respond to that very important issue before. The American people deserve to know Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general was responsible for the death of hundreds of American service members.”

When Harris warned that Trump’s efforts to end the Affordable Care Act would also end guaranteed coverage for Americnas with pre-existing conditions, Pence said they have a plan just for pre-existing conditions. “You yourself said on multiple occasions when you were running for president, that you would ban fracking.” Fracking, as in the oil and gas extraction process? You read that right.

Direct answers were in short supply. Follow-up questions from Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, were even harder to find, which leads us to the final take-away of the evening: Maybe it’s time to rethink these charades.

The traditional mano-a-mano televised debates have transformed for the worse since Kennedy and Nixon got it all started. Although the format is largely unchanged, the addition of cable news clock countdowns, Twitter hot takes, and partisan after-shows has overshadowed the only purpose debates should serve– to answer the questions on voters’ minds.

When an evening is declared a success on CNN for being, “not emotionally abusive,” it’s time to set the bar higher. Voters deserve more than they’re getting in these debates.