The Pence-Harris Debate Was a Model of Civility, Evasion, and Obfuscation
Last night’s vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris was much politer than last week’s raucous rumble between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It was also much less entertaining and only slightly more substantive, largely because both candidates followed the time-honored tradition of refusing to answer inconvenient questions.
Civility is important. Some viewers may have rolled their eyes as Pence talked about the close friendship between the late Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. But our political dialogue and social relationships would be much improved if more Americans took Pence’s point seriously.
Ginsburg and Scalia, Pence noted, were “polar opposites on the Supreme Court,” one “very liberal” and the other “very conservative.” Yet “the two of them and their families were the very closest of friends.” The lesson: “Here in America, we can disagree. We can debate vigorously, as Senator Harris and I have on this stage tonight. But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans.”
While that might sound corny, there is no other way for ideologically opposed people to live together in peace. At a time when nearly everything is politicized, when mutual hatred between left and right demands that everyone pick a side and avoid fraternizing with the enemy, that message needs to be heard more.
Pence not only preached civility but modeled it. “I want to congratulate you…on the historic nature of your nomination,” he told Harris, the first African-American woman to appear on a major-party ticket. “I respect the fact that Joe Biden spent 47 years in public life. I respect your public service as well.”
Such graciousness should not be remarkable, but it is especially striking when compared to the venomous, overheated, take-no-prisoners rhetoric of Pence’s running mate, who cannot even manage to feign respect for his opponents. It is impossible to imagine Donald Trump saying anything nice about someone who crosses him or poses an obstacle to his ambitions.
Trump’s rude, crude, babyish behavior may be amusing, but it is not conducive to rational debate—or any sort of debate at all. A man who cannot contain himself when he hears someone express an opinion with which he disagrees, who cannot even keep his mouth shut until that person finishes a sentence, is incapable of having a meaningful discussion. Trump’s supporters may think his boorishness shakes things up and lays bare important truths, but in practice it reveals nothing but his personal shortcomings.
While Pence presents himself as an imperturbable mensch, Trump presents himself as a petty, intolerant, excitable asshole. Although I’m not sure I want to have a beer with either of these men, one of them is clearly capable of keeping his cool when he encounters people who disagree with him. The other one clearly is not.
But civility is not everything. While Pence and Harris were generally polite to each other, both of them repeatedly dodged perfe
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