Would Kamala Harris be ready to become president on Day Two, if necessary? That was the only authentic question in the debate last night. Everyone knows that Joe Biden is headed to victory, short of some unpredictable and dramatic event. Everyone knows that, on one issue and another, the two sides are opposites, and everyone knows the arguments for and against. Everyone knows that, if necessary, Mike Pence would, in fact, be ready. He has the look of self-assurance, administrative competence, and mastery of the issues, if you grant the plausibility of the Republican interpretation of things.
Four years ago, Pence debated Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and there was not a doubt in the world that Pence was ready even then. He made Kaine look pudgy and soft. Pence looked clever and humorous—a man whose superior intellect allowed him to perceive that Donald Trump was not, in fact, the odious character that obviously he was, but ought to be seen, instead, as a one-of-a-kind, possessed of original insights.
Four years later, Pence is still self-possessed. But the charm of his soft-spoken personality is gone. He has become a man who interrupts and overspeaks. The boss’s traits have rubbed off on him. He has begun to look like a toothpaste tube, with the white paste and his voice oozing up from the tube and bobbing left and right, now affirming that science must always be respected, now filibustering to avoid having to explain why America has fared so badly in the face of the pandemic, compared to, say, Canada—the twinkle gone dead in his eye, the red in the other eye, and the fly on his hair making everyone wonder whether his negative tests will remain negative.
Kamala Harris was not consistently brilliant. She failed to hit Pence on one issue or follow-up after another (and he failed to hit her on her ferocious attack on Joe Biden during the Democratic primary debates). But she was quick enough, confident enough, tough enough, and, at the same time, relentlessly personable. That was the whole of the debate. The only issue going into that debate was, after all, does Joe Biden have an adequate heir, given his vigorlessness and antiquity? Is it safe to vote for Biden, who is running as the candidate of safety?
Her performance was perfect, then, if only intermittently excellent—perfect because she demonstrated over the course of 90 minutes that, yes, the senator from California is ready. And the Democratic Party is the party of sanity and calm in America.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.