After Vice President Chester A. Arthur ascended to the presidency after the assassination of President James A. Garfield 1881, he was mockingly dubbed “your accidency” by some opponents.
Sadly, it is this macabre specter that hangs over any vice presidential debate: If either combatant ends up as president in the next four years, something has gone terribly wrong.
This is the subtext that led into Wednesday night’s debate between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris, and since 2020 is the year subtlety died, flies showed up and circled the VP candidates to drive the point home.
Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.
In historical context, the Pence-Harris debate was about as ordinary as it gets. Granted, it took place just days after President Donald Trump behaved like a wolverine eating bath salts in front of 70 million viewers, so the civility bar was inordinately low.
But that’s why Wednesday’s vice presidential debate was jarring for its normalcy. It was a debate about substance taking place in a campaign entirely about style.
Further, the entire debate seemed to be taking place in an alternate universe where Donald Trump isn’t wreaking havoc on American political norms on an hourly basis. It was as if America had entered a time portal where people actually cared about taxes and spending and health care and didn’t have to worry about the president killing his own staff with a deadly virus.
More: Trump handmaid Mike Pence faces off with an impressive Kamala Harris: Mastio and Lawrence
For example, early in the debate, Pence was on defense as Harris hammered away at the Trump administration’s horrid response to the COVID-19 crisis, which eventually led to the president himself getting infected and turning into a biological weapon.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” Harris said, referring to Trump’s recorded admission that he knew how dangerous the virus was early in the pandemic. “They covered it up.”
Trump plays politics with lives
Pence, whose resting face can be described a “man who has accidentally been served pineapple on his pizza,” ended the exchange by accusing former Vice President Joe Biden and Harris of “playing politics with peoples’ lives.”
Of course, that answer would only fail to provoke laughter in an America where Pence’s president doesn’t routinely play politics with peoples’ lives, such as when Trump holds large maskless campaign rallies or superspreader political events in the White House’s Rose Garden.
Midway through the debate, however, Pence began to score points against Harris. He knocked Harris and Biden for their public commitments to ban fracking, a nod to swing state Pennsylvania that he might as well have delivered while wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat and Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.
More: Kamala Harris and Mike Pence clash, but in a civilized way
He knocked Biden and Harris for supporting the budget-busting Green New Deal on their website. When asked about abortion, he simply ignored the question and discussed Trump’s successful order to kill murderous Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
And when moderator Susan Page asked Harris about the Democrats’ plan to raise taxes by four trillion dollars, Pence’s face lit up as if he just found out “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was just canceled.
If one were to assign a grade for the night, Pence likely won the debate, as his measured yet aggressive style backed Harris into some cul-de-sacs from which she couldn’t escape. For example, she refused to say whether she and Biden would “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court as retribution for Trump’s nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett — instead, she rattled off a bizarre answer about how Trump is “packing” the court by not nominating any Black appeals court judges.
A passing boost to Trump
But the boost Pence’s performance supplies is certain to be temporary, as Trump will predictably torpedo any veneer of competence the VP debate gave the president’s campaign. It’s as if they applied a fresh coat of paint to an igloo and set it out in the hot sun to dry.
Of course, the only issue of the debate that matters is the one whose name must never be spoken.
On the Republican side, there is a 74-year old president that currently has a potentially deadly disease taking residence in his organs. And on the Democratic side, there is a former vice president who would be the oldest man to take office by nearly eight years. As a reminder of what’s at stake, the debate organizers might as well have added a third chair on the stage for the Grim Reaper (whose COVID-19 plan is eerily similar to Trump’s.)
Ultimately, neither candidate did anything that will significantly alter the trajectory of this election, which has seen Trump crater in recent polls. By November, if Trump doesn’t turn things around, it’ll be his presidency that is drawing flies, not just Mike Pence.
Christian Schneider, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, is a senior reporter at The College Fix and author of “1916: The Blog.” Follow him on Twitter: @Schneider_CM
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pence-Harris debate: A polite battle over substance in a campaign about style (plus a fly)