The vice presidential debate Wednesday was a far cry from what preceded it the week prior where President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden talked over each other like competing cattle auctioneers.
Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris ducked questions like experienced and disciplined politicians so often do. Sure they had moments where they spilled into each other’s time, but they remained, on the whole, civil — bland and forgettable.
Heck, the star of the night was probably the fly, which landed on Pence’s head, and even its policy positions were surprisingly hard to pin down. Although, that’s what vice presidents are tasked to do, don’t mess it up for the top of the ticket. If one were to be reactionary, one could say “there stand the adults in the room, a return to normalcy,” and that may have some merit.
But does it matter? Were there swaths of undecided voters who were so bewildered by the first presidential debate that they would have to watch the vice presidential debate to decide between the ticket-headers, and were they saying “whoever messes up, I’m going for the other guy.”
History suggests there probably weren’t.
Vice presidential debates happen and are memory-holed by just about everyone who’s not a complete politics fanatic by the following week. After all, there are usually more presidential debates to follow.
In this unusual year, the next presidential debate was set for Oct. 15 in Miami, and was originally scheduled to be held in a town-hall format, but Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis prompted the debate committee to switch to a virtual set-up, which Trump said is “a waste of time.” So, for now, it’s all kind of up in the air.
Even still, vice presidential debates, when they do have a gaffe or disaster, don’t seem to have much effect in the grand scheme and really only serving to fill some air time for all of the major mainstream media outlets.
One of the most memorable vice presidential debate brouhahas, when in 1988 Democrat Lloyd Bentsen retorted to Republican Dan Quayle, who had compared himself to John F. Kennedy, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” was much ado about nothing, as Bentsen won the day and received applause and then George H.W. Bush swept into the presidency, winning 40 states and 426 electoral votes with Quayle at his side.
During the 2012 vice presidential debate, Biden called an attack on his foreign policy record “a bunch of malarkey.” Malarkey being an objectively hilarious word aside, Barack Obama won reelection. In 1992, Independent vice president candidate James Stockdale asked, “Who am I? Why am I here?” in his opening remarks and yet Ross Perot rode a wave to 18.9% of the vote.
On Wednesday, both Pence and Harris didn’t ask “who am I,” they said, “we’re here and relatively calm,” and what more could we ask for? It’s not like we’ll remember it anyway, even the fly.