“Do no harm.” “Prosecute the case.” “Proxy war.”
To watch cable news in the hours preceding Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, held at Virginia’s Longwood University—”Norwood University,” if you happen to live in the MCU, or Mike Pence Career-Saving Universe—was to witness the panelists breathe a sigh of relief. Here was a contest, the repetition of stock phrases implied, that fit the mould, poised to submit to analysis: Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democrat, versus Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican, both career politicians, each trained to hew to the rules the game.
Despite the best efforts of CNN’s Erin Burnett (“You can see how high the stakes are”), the sense that the contest was inconsequential, and thereby unworthy of more than pro forma discussion, suffused the evening with a certain glow—the expectant bliss of a summer Friday. “This is a moment for these two vice presidential candidates potentially to shine,” Burnett’s colleague, Wolf Blitzer, said by way of setting the table, perhaps hoping to help that small handful of viewers who’d never once seen a debate get their bearings. “Here is the question of the night,” Gwen Ifill remarked, more pointedly, on PBS. “Why does the vice presidential debate matter?”
It was not terribly surprising, then, that the combative, crosstalk-filled 90 minutes of the debate itself left the various contributors’ predictive powers wanting: The “Thrilla in Vanilla,” as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews called it, turned out to be, in its enervating way, the perfect emblem of a campaign that’s propelled the voting public toward nihilism. CNN’s focus group of undecided Virginians, for instance, which bucked the general assessment that Pence triumphed “on style” and chose Kaine as the winner, unanimously wished that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump were at the top of their respective tickets—a forgivable fantasy, perhaps, but also an unproductive one, 34 days before the election.
This sort of despair, masquerading as wishful thinking, has been the signal feature of the cycle so far (remember #NeverTrump?), though the familiar metaphors deployed by those on cable tended to skirt the uncomfortable notion that such feelings are most often associated with people under the yoke of dictators and warlords. It was fitting, in fact, that Pence should strive to conjure up an another dimension with his ghostly white smirk: One might describe the debate, with respect to Gabriel García Márquez, as a form of magical realism.
The night, as it happens, really featured two debates: One between Kaine and Trump’s record, the other between Pence and the truth, the latter set in an alternate reality where Trump had not neutered the conservative movement in the course of the primaries. Faced with the unenviable task of forcing these parallel tracks to converge, moderator Elaine Quijano, of CBS, lost control early and never regained it; armed with an array of broad questions, she was unable to pin either candidate down on substance that scratched deeper than talking points. (Rachel Maddow, not usually given to strong opinions in the course of MSNBC’s special coverage, described Quijano’s line of questioning as “refrigerator poetry.” It was not, to my ears at least, meant as a compliment.)
In fairness, though, none of the experts on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News Channel expected Pence to feint so consistently, or so calmly; none foresaw Kaine, a rather off-putting brew of jocular and jittery, to interrupt at every one of his opponent’s dissimulations. Amid the on-air autopilot of the chattering classes, it was as if the past year had been wiped from the hard drive, the embrace of fantasies, conspiracy theories, verbal acrobatics, and outright lies forgotten.
As the post-debate analysis wore on, there were bright spots—Megyn Kelly usefully explained why Kaine’s description of the Iran nuclear deal was exaggeratedly positive; Maddow rightly complained that Quijano had given Pence a free pass on his bigoted positions with regard to LGBT rights—but in the main no one had the gumption to suggest that Kaine and Pence spent the night nodding at the long-term consequences of this dispiriting season. The real “Trumped-up trickle-down,” to use one of the Clinton-Kaine campaign’s many painfully corny turns of phrase, has been the normalization of the GOP nominee’s flagrant disregard for the facts, the habituation to patterns of speech and action that not long ago would have registered as unthinkable.
As President Obama pointed out recently, this began, in some sense, with another vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, but 2016 has accelerated the transformation of the “pivot” into the brazen denial, the truth into an article of faith. Lost in last night’s unintelligible crosstalk was the purposefulness of political falsehoods, the new understanding that no candidate can or will be held accountable for his or her “misstatements” by more than 40% of the electorate. Having reduced presidential politics to a room full of Virginia voters who would prefer the primaries had never happened, we have eliminated the need for elected officials to cast their net much beyond their base, and thereby the likelihood that they’ll do so.
This was the ultimate message of the vice presidential debate, which somehow strained to hold my interest yet produced a kind of existential crisis: That the time for a “Reality Check,” as CNN’s aggressively shallow, all-too-literal fact-checking segment has it, is already long behind us, that the damage to our vaunted political process has already been done. By the time the clock struck midnight, the consensus was that Pence had narrowly won the night—the first scientific polls suggested as much—but that Kaine had set him up to answer for his lies in the coming days, and so perhaps had won the week. The consensus was that Pence had done more to lay the groundwork for 2020 than he had to help Trump, though a news cycle devoted to the debate might stanch the crude businessman’s bleeding. The consensus was that no one votes for the second name on the ticket anyway.
No harm had been done, the case had been prosecuted, the proxy war had been fought to a draw. The “refrigerator poetry” of this election had once again been reshuffled, leading to a few plugs for Sunday’s “must-win” debate. To answer Ifill’s question, nothing mattered, not in the alternate reality we label as “politics.” The truest statement might have been Matthew Dowd’s contention, on ABC, that Pence appeared to want “out of this year’s election.” As far as consensus went, this was the one that seemed to bridge the partisan divide: After 18 or so months of this relentless bullshit, so did we.