In perhaps the most chaotic week of a chaotic presidency, what was most surprising about tonight’s vice-presidential debate was how oddly normal it felt.
Five days ago, the president of the United States was hospitalized after contracting a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. There were legitimate questions about whether Donald Trump could execute the powers of his office. In the days since, dozens of people who work in or closely with the White House and the president’s reelection campaign have become infected, including senior officials in the government, the Republican Party, and the U.S. military. The president has proclaimed himself to be “cured” of the virus, but the extent of his illness remains unknown to the public. Meanwhile, Trump has continued to undermine the integrity of the election, refused to commit to relinquishing power if he loses, and, as recently as this afternoon, suggested that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, “shouldn’t be allowed” to even run.
In front of that backdrop, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris politely traded milquetoast zingers and debated policy for 90 minutes like it was 2012—or some other year before Trump commandeered American politics and remade it in his own image.
Pence and Harris recited talking points and dutifully attacked the men leading each other’s tickets; they dodged questions and tried to talk for longer than they were allowed; the time-honored debate rejoinder “You’re entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts” made not one, but two appearances. In other words, tonight’s debate was like every other general-election matchup before Trump came on the scene. The most memorable moment of the entire affair belonged not to the candidates but to a fly that landed on Pence’s head and remained stuck in his shock of white hair for a few minutes, likely distracting the viewing audience from an important discussion of racial injustice.