The dangling Sword of Damocles that has hovered over the Democratic Party since the conclusion of an overextended primary process finally and emphatically dropped during the vice presidential debate between VP Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) in Salt Lake City on Oct. 7. An ineffective Harris failed to land any meaningful punches in support of Democrat White House aspirant Joe Biden while trapping herself on issues, such as fracking and China trade, that the Trump campaign was positively eager to see discussed.
Having been re-elevated to a position of prominence by Biden after her primary campaign fizzle, Harris failed on the Big Stage once again at the time when she most needed to shine. What made the Biden campaign think it would be otherwise?
Democrats had hoped that Harris would serve as a vibrant attack dog for the underwhelming 77-year-old Biden. With this in mind, she desperately needed to hit a home run or two against Pence. The California senator never came close.
On three separate occasions, Harris trotted out her Tough Gal prosecutorial persona, resorting to the same language she leaned on during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings in 2018. “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” she brusquely proclaimed. Then, as during her Kavanaugh confrontation, she simply didn’t have much of anything to say.
The debate began with a de rigueur conversation about the coronavirus crisis, on which Democrats strongly believe they can win. But nothing new was said on either side and Harris put a punctuation mark on the limp back and forth by reciting her resumé when asked about possible presidential disability due to the virus. She was flat and formulaic like a nervous job seeker at an uncomfortable interview. She would remain that way through most of the evening.
Harris’ one relatively strong moment came when she targeted President Trump over recent news reports concerning his tax returns. “We now know Donald Trump owes, and is in debt, for $400 million,” Harris crisply stated. “And just so everyone is clear, when we say in debt, it means you owe money to somebody. And it’d be really good to know who the president of the United States, the commander in chief, owes money to.”
Harris was citing a New York Times article that Trump has claimed is false, and she did so astutely. But even here she stumbled, contrasting Trump’s alleged secrecy on his taxes with what she billed as Biden’s “incredibly transparent” nature. It set Pence up to target Biden’s ties to his son Hunter’s shady financial dealings in Ukraine and China. Pence flubbed the opportunity, offering up a pat defense of Trump’s finances instead. But Harris would continue to tee her opponent up for easy counterpunches on forthcoming issues, and Pence would not let those chances pass by, connecting twice to devastating effect.
Filleted on Fracking
As the topic turned to fracking, Harris displayed just how out of her depth she was. “Joe Biden will not end fracking, he has been very clear about that,” Harris sternly declared. The emphatic tone was tactically inappropriate, given Democratic vulnerability on the issue.
And just like that, a door was opened for Pence to bring up Biden’s and Harris’ own often-stated words against them. But this is the Democrats’ big flaw, a weakness greatly magnified by having Harris on the ticket. They want to pretend the stridently leftist Democrat primary season that prominently featured both members of their 2020 presidential team never happened. Unsurprisingly, it is a game Republicans prefer not to play.
“You yourself said on multiple occasions when you were running for president that you would ban fracking,” Pence replied. “Joe Biden looked a supporter in the eye and pointed and said, ‘I guarantee – I guarantee – that we will abolish fossil fuels.'”
This was not a matter to get caught up in from a blue point of view. It was time to duck and run. Instead, Harris upped the ante on her stubborn vehemence. “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact. That is a fact,” she vigorously asserted.
This was not good. The subject was a twin liability for Harris, yet here she was prolonging it. By amplifying her adamant vow that Biden would not end fracking, she further alienated progressives who don’t trust the former vice president. It could even cause undecided voters to question the sincerity of Team Biden given that the nominee’s primary remarks were lying there waiting to be quoted by Pence, as they duly were.
It was a mistake of the highest order for Harris to harp on the matter instead of changing the subject, something that is not particularly difficult to do at these forums. But at a time when Harris should have been dancing, she tried to be a rock. Republicans undoubtedly were delighted to have her tenaciously cling to the issue.
Foreign Policy Flame Out
After this brutal exchange, Harris herself brought up trade with China in an odd attempt to use this cherished Trump talking point as a weapon against him, claiming the president had “lost that trade war” with the repressive nation. The volleyball had again been lofted for Pence to spike.
“Lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it. Joe Biden has been a cheerleader for communist China over the last several decades,” he deftly responded before fleshing out his answer in sharp detail. “When Joe Biden was vice president, we lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs, and President Obama said they were never coming back.” It was a crushing retort, and one Harris could have easily avoided. Did she really believe Biden could be cast as strong on China while Trump could be denounced as weak?
The China misstep was part of a muddled Harris assault on Trump’s foreign policy record, which regurgitated well-worn Democrat sloganeering on Russia as a dire security threat and the president as a divisive diplomatic force. “What we have seen with Donald Trump is that he has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world. Let’s take, for example, Russia,” she stated before bringing up alleged Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. “Donald Trump, the commander in chief of the United States of America, prefers to take the word of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin over the word of the American intelligence community.”
“Because of Donald Trump’s unilateral approach to foreign policy, coupled with his isolationism, he pulled us out and has made America less safe,” she added while discussing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration.
It all sounded stale and contrived, restating as it did material that has been unceasingly flung at the president by Democrats and his detractors in establishment media outlets for four years. This flavorless rehash appeared to be more about Harris trying to convince voters that she really did understand foreign policy than a sincere effort to hit at Trump on a sensitive issue. As with her frozen resumé recitation, Harris seemed to be trying to tell Americans that she was equal to this moment after all.
Interestingly, having Pence as her debate rival was probably the worst match-up conceivable for Harris. Pence’s calm demeanor was a foil to her abrasive personality in two significant ways. His unflappable presence took the sting out of Harris’ forced “I’m speaking now” vocalizing and showed that the former prosecutor is just not good at playing the Tough Gal on the big political stage. At the same time, his composed air assured that, once she had finished with her posturing, Harris would be forced to offer something of substance. She could not do so and Mike Pence helped emphasize that fact to American voters.
One has to wonder why the Biden campaign couldn’t foresee a Pence-Harris prize fight’s unfavorable dynamics when it tabbed the leftist party primary also-ran to be its vice presidential candidate two months ago. This is a woman who couldn’t outlast the likes of former South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). What made Democrats think she could handle the sitting vice president of the United States?
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