It was always going to be about the two faces of America.
One: white, male, midwestern, evangelical Christian. The other: Black, female, coastal, progressive.
What wasn’t so predictable about the face-to-face at Wednesday’s US vice-presidential debate was that Mike Pence would show up with bloodshot eye – never a good look during a pandemic – or that a fly would nestle in his snowy white hair.
Equally striking was Kamala Harris’s ability to weaponise facial expressions. The California senator’s fusillade of raised eyebrows, pursed lips and withering stares at her opponent will live in Democrats’ memory long after the words are forgotten (and probably be viewed by Republicans as sneering elitism).
It was also notable that both candidates did a better job than their bosses in last week’s debate apocalypse. Both were adept at sidestepping questions – such as whether they had discussed “the issue of presidential disability” with their septuagenarian running mates – in favour of talking points. At times, it almost felt like a brief holiday in political normality.
This may also have been a sneak preview of the 2024 election. Harris was on her game and looked ready to take over from Trump’s Democratic presidential challenger, Joe Biden. Pence, the current vice-president, used attack lines on taxes, the Green New Deal and the supreme court that Trump failed to land against Biden last week.
It was hardly a surprise that Pence reeked of white male privilege; it was less anticipated that the target was the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, as much as Harris. Showing no respect for her questions, rules or timekeeping, he just kept talking and often called her “Susan”.
Struggling to gain control, she pleaded: “I did not create the rules for tonight ... I’m here to enforce them.”
So with that, Republicans may have lost more suburban women voters, if that is even possible. But the bottom line is that this VP debate won’t change the race.
It took place in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the candidates separated by two Perspex screens, a metaphor if ever there was one for America’s divisions and self-affirming bubbles.
Pence wore a dark suit, white shirt and Trumpian red tie; Harris sported a black jacket, dark blouse and necklace; both wore Stars and Stripes badges.
The former prosecutor made her case to the jury with a bald statement about the coronavirus pandemic that would prove impossible to top: “The American people have witnessed the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”
She added for good measure that “this administration has forfeited their right to re-election based on this”.
Pence had the unenviable task of defending the indefensible. “From the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” he claimed unconvincingly, during a pandemic that has claimed more than 210,000 American lives and infected more than 7 million people. Harris pulled another of her scathing lawyerly expressions.
Pence, head of the White House coronavirus taskforce, went on to offer a highly disingenuous defence that bore little relation to Harris’s critique: “When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices of the American people.”
Pence also claimed that the Biden-Harris plan for dealing with Covid-19 looks awfully similar to what the Trump administration is already doing. “It looks a bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”
It was a reference to Biden failing to credit the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock in a speech 33 years ago. Harris shook her head wryly.
Yet twice in the debate Pence used the line, “You’re entitled to your opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts,” without crediting the man who coined it, the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “Good line,” said Harris sarcastically.
It was a bold line of attack for a campaign and administration that has been caught in thousands of lies or misleading claims. Would Harris take a Covid-19 vaccine if it became available? “If the public health professionals, if Dr Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it I’ll be the first in line to take it,” she said. “Absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it I’m not taking it.”
Pence demanded: “Senator, I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives. The reality is that we will have a vaccine, we believe, before the end of this year. And it will have the capacity to save countless American lives. And your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine is just unacceptable.”
Harris smiled and shook her head.
Later, she delivered a memorable warning about the Trump administration’s concerted efforts to undo Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.
“If you have a pre-existing condition – heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer – they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”
It was perhaps the most quotable riff of a night that was more courteous than the horror show in Cleveland last week.
When Trump interrupted like a jackhammer, Biden eventually snapped: “Will you shut up, man?” Harris had a more elegant rebuke prepared: “Mr Vice-President, I’m speaking.”
She deployed it a few times but, on one occasion, during a tangle over Biden’s tax policy, Pence nipped in: “It’d be important if you said the truth.”
Harris smiled and paused, fatally, allowing the vice-president to seize the initiative and state: “Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he’s going to repeal the Trump tax cuts.”
The debate moved on, unlikely to change many minds. Perhaps tellingly, Pence was denying the existence of systemic racism when the fly spent two minutes on his head.
The lie will be forgotten by Thursday afternoon. The fly will not. It evoked comparisons with the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in which Norman Bates, channeling his mother, spots a fly and says: “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly …”
At the end, Pence’s wife, Karen, joined him on stage and was not wearing a face mask. Pence reportedly calls her “mother”.