October 8, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The VP debate wasn’t boring at all

Mike Pence sounded civil, but his words were barbarous.

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I don’t think Wednesday’s debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris is going to change voters’ minds. The only practical outcome I can imagine is the vice president having energized Donald Trump’s critics even more. For one thing, “Pence the Pious Patriarch” is a shtick so insufferable as to be maddening. For another, Harris had no truck with that tired white-man-of-faith persona, interrupting Pence’s entitled interruptions by reminding him, with a smile, that “I’m speaking, I’m speaking.”

There are those who want a return to boring old politics and there are those who don’t want to see such a return.

In a sense, the pundit corps’ reaction is more interesting. On the one hand are traditional pol watchers who noted blandly the difference from last week’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It was civil. It was substantive. It was policy-oriented. It was all things in near-total absence last time when our authoritarian president became unglued in the presence of a male opponent as super-white as he is.

On the other hand are new pol watchers who found many points of interest that weren’t boring at all. A white man, for instance, broke the debate rules regularly while a biracial woman did not. Pence did not commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Harris did not say whether Biden planned to pack the US Supreme Court. Pence alleged that Biden would raise taxes. Harris corrected him. He doubled down. She corrected him again. And so on. Harris, moreover, hinted at a rationale for court-packing, saying the Senate Republicans had already established the precedent. (She meant lower courts of the federal judiciary, of course, but the GOP’s “precedent” could apply to the highest court, too.)

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The reaction among pundits, in other words, seems to reflect divisions in the pundit corps itself. There are those who want a return to boring old politics and there are those who don’t want to see such a return. That’s what led us to where we are now. There are those who pine for a return to the normal politics of the regime established by Ronald Reagan and there are those pining for a new regime modeled after Barack Obama’s presidency. While some pundits, mostly white men, have difficulty imagining dynamics of power that do not bend in their direction, other pundits understand that reality implicitly. While some pundits are aghast at the sadism on display, other pundits have seen it all along, even when it was cloaked in decorum and civility. Last night’s debate was a case in point. Pence sounded civil, but his words were barbarous.

Take abortion, for example. The sanctity, sanctity, sanctity! Of life, life, life! Everyone thinks they know what that mantra means but they really don’t. Here’s what it means: The Republicans and their evangelical confederates want state governments to not only regulate women’s bodies. They want to make it legal for one person to use another person’s body to stay alive. Conversely, they want to make it illegal for one person to say no to another person who wants to use her body to stay alive. Pence & Co. sound so very civilized. The sanctity of life! Despoliation is more like it. There’s no sanctity in turning a woman, as George Carlin put it, into “a broodmare for the state.”

Harris, meanwhile, was clear about her stance on abortion. If I’m not mistaken, the way she did it was new. She didn’t qualify it. She didn’t call it sad, tragic, a necessary evil, or some such nonsense. That’s what Democrats of yore did when pinned between competing factions. Harris, however, identifies as Black. She no doubt views abortion in the context of American history—when Black bodies used to be property and white men used to do whatever they wanted to Black bodies. Though Black evangelicals generally oppose abortion, they don’t oppose Roe, the court precedent legalizing it. Doing that would be doing the unthinkable: standing with anti-Black white power. In a very real sense, Harris’ pro-choice politics reflects a politics of Black solidarity.

Which is to say, her politics is civilized while Pence’s is barbarous. The old guard of the pundit corps usually doesn’t see that. It’s generally more sympathetic to fetuses than to grown women whose treatment by law and society is made more gothic by its “holy” rationalizations. The new guard, however, tends to see with clear eyes. More generally, I think, the new guard detected in last night’s debate signs of a future to come. It wasn’t just black versus white, though that’s important. It was a clash of epochs in which the 20th century finally came to an end and the 21st truly began.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. realsaramerica on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Every woman in my feed made some comment about how we’ve all experienced a Mike Pence more than once in our careers – that mediocre white dude who isn’t as smart as we are constantly interrupting and patronizing. Whoever makes Kamala saying “I’m speaking, please let me finish” as a ringtone will make bank.

  2. TY111 on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Great piece

  3. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Who were these 21st century journalists? Let’s get names, please. (I wouldn’t mind learning who those stuck-in-the-20th-century journalists were as well.)

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

      Jamelle Bouie, Wesley Lowrey, Nikole Hannah-Jones come to mind.

  4. John Smart on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    So interesting watching straight white men get spotted a smaller and smaller lead. There is rage an panic about not being declared automatic winners when they just show up.

    In a real meritocracy Pence would rise to the level of Terre Haute mayor and no further – He seems suited for that job. Whereas Harris would logically be competing for VP or POTUS.

    Pence was ONLY on that stage last night because his straight white maleness allows people like him to get jobs they otherwise would never get.

    • David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

      His only credential seems to be “mediocre Right Wing talk show host”.

  5. Leslie M., Eastern KS on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    OMG John… I hope you’re right about finally putting PencePatriarchy to bed in the 21C. It’s way overdue, that.

  6. David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    I’m disappointed that you neglected to mention The Pence Fly, the real star of last night’s debate. After all, they ARE good at detecting rot and decay. The symbolism was hard to ignore 😉

    • Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

      And don’t forget fecal matter

  7. hw on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    So many outdated narratives were at play during last night’s debate. I find it remarkable that our society has been blinded for so long to the evils of men like Pence. He represented cigarette companies and lied about the dangers of smoking, as governor of Indiana, he refused to pass legislation that would have saved thousands of lives during the AIDs epidemic, and now as VP, he hides behind a calm and faux-pious demeanor to strip citizens of basic healthcare during a pandemic while supporting policies that have led to 210K deaths and counting. We’ve all been conditioned to some degree by movies and television to envision evil as something easily recognized. Trump has taken the mask off the GOP, and we see that small government/family values/strong defense was vaporware, and principles were simply a disguise for single-minded lust after power and money. Someone should create a video with a background of a rising body count, showing the number of deaths during his 2-hours of lies and propaganda. This is how he should be remembered, he’s equally as complicit as Trump. This country is headed towards a repudiation of the status quo…the evil banality of Pence and the open corruption of Trump have been recognized as two sides of the same coin.

  8. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Oh, and by the way, I just found out about this: The experimental antibody cocktail that Trump received as part of his COVID-19 treatment relied on human fetal tissue his administration opposes. In June 2019, the Trump administration suspended federal funding for most new scientific research involving fetal tissue derived from abortions. Trump has praised Regeneron’s treatment as “miracles coming down from God,” calling it a “cure” for COVID-19 and promising to provide it free to any patient who needed it. (Washington Post / New York Times)
    Hypocrisy ! What next?

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