The following editorial appears on Bloomberg Opinion:
Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate, despite its limitations, felt like a breakthrough after the recent top-of-the-ticket atrocity. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris let each other speak, for the most part. They exchanged some intelligible opinions. They were civil, even if they sometimes voiced their courtesy through gritted teeth. Many viewers must’ve felt nostalgic for what used to be normal politics. Perhaps, after all, it might one day resume.
Admittedly, the vice-presidential debate rarely affects the outcome of an election. In 2020, it should matter more than usual, with President Donald Trump a victim of covid-19 and challenger Joe Biden hoping to take his place as the oldest first-term president. But Wednesday night’s event, refreshing though it was under the circumstances, is unlikely to break the pattern. Pence and Harris avoided memorable errors – their main task – and came across pretty well. It’s unlikely they moved any votes.
Never mind. In a country as badly divided as the U.S., talking rather than shouting is an achievement in itself. For one thing, it’s good practice for striking policy compromises that are better for the country than refusing to budge. (The months-long impasse over a new coronavirus relief plan is a case in point.) Political leaders also need to set an example. In a free country, people disagree, but hope to live together peacefully and productively nonetheless. That’s hard when society is organized from top to bottom into warring tribes.
The Pence-Harris contest gave voters information, as well, which is really the point. The two contenders could hardly have offered clearer contrasts on the environment, abortion, racial-justice issues and more. Sure, more substance would’ve been better. The candidates too often evaded the moderator’s clear and concise questions, swerving to pre-planned talking points on other subjects. Pence failed to explain why the U.S. response to covid-19 has been so much worse than that of many other advanced economies, or how Trump means to replace Obamacare. Harris had little to say about what a Biden administration would’ve done differently on the pandemic, and declined to state whether she favored enlarging the Supreme Court if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed. Both candidates ran away from a question about presidential succession.
That was unfortunate. In all these cases, voters are entitled to answers. After last week’s shambles, though, it’s hard to complain. Normal politics has its drawbacks, and should hardly be the nation’s highest aspiration. But compared to the politics of the past four years, it would come as a welcome relief.