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In Tonight’s Debate, the Bar Set for Mike Pence Is Infuriatingly Low

Mike Pence looks unhappy in front of the American flag.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Tonight Kamala Harris and Mike Pence will meet in Salt Lake City for the first and only scheduled vice presidential debate. Standing behind their tiny pieces of plexiglass (which the Pence team has spent all week complaining about), this will be an opportunity to hear from the other halves of both of these campaigns. And unfortunately, the bar for Pence seems to be set incredibly low.

Pretty much every political outlet on the internet has a piece up today listing “The 5 Things to Watch for in Tonight’s Debate” (or some version of that). And they’re all pretty similar.

Basically, Pence’s job is to act as Trump’s translator, turning his rage ramblings into reasonable-sounding policy concerns. Expect a lot of condescending “obviously, what he meant was …” sort of statements, as if Harris and the rest of us are foolish children for actually listening to Trump’s words. The general consensus seems to be that if Pence stays calm and projects any degree of intelligence, professionalism, and Midwestern nice, it’ll be more than enough to consider the night a big win and convince voters Trump is actually a perfectly fine and rational candidate.

Pence is the running mate of the man who has overseen a disastrously mishandled response to a global pandemic, leaving more than 200,000 people dead in this country alone–the same man who has been rage tweeting since he insisted on leaving the hospital early and returning to work despite being in the highly contagious period of a case of COVID-19 and putting everyone around him at risk. And even beyond that, Pence has an anti-science, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ+ record that he should be terrified to have to defend.

Yet it is Harris who is being framed as the “complicated” one who has to prove herself.

To be fair, Harris does have to prove herself and her support of Biden to voters. The whole point of a debate is to convince voters that you’re the best candidate, and that includes addressing all the questions and issues those voters might have. But the candidates should, in theory, in a better world than this, be approached evenly in that regard.

Mike Pence is widely regarded as a great debater and that’s because he’s skilled at avoiding answering questions. CNN wrote today:

“Mike is a good debater,” said John Gregg, an Indiana Democrat who went to law school with Pence and ran against him for governor in 2012. “On certain questions that he gets, if he doesn’t want to answer it, he is just a master at not answering it and pivoting to talking points.”

Harris is also a great debater, and part of that is because she’s good at forcing her opponent to answer hard questions, as we saw with her interactions with Joe Biden in the primaries. So this should be an interesting match-up. But it’s frustrating that Pence is expected to dodge hard questions tonight while the framing around Harris is that it will be a disaster if she does the same.

Again, I don’t want her to dodge anything; the double standards just get frustrating. Especially because on top of everything else, as a woman and especially a woman of color, if Harris does push too hard on Pence, that can backfire in the very narrow window of public perception she’s supposed to fit into.

Strap in, everyone, it’s going to be an exhausting night.

(image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.