BOSTON (CBS) – What was the vice presidential debate drinking game phrase most likely to leave the viewer with the worst hangover?
If you picked Kamala Harris trashing President Trump’s “failure,” you were tipsy ten minutes in.
If it was Mike Pence gushing over Trump’s “leadership,” you were out cold at the 45-minute mark.
And if you had hapless moderator Susan Page of USA Today desperately trying to keep (mostly) Pence from bulldozing past his time limit with a string of thoroughly-ignored “thank you’s,” you are on an IV at your local hospital this morning vowing to never touch booze again.
And that was a key to understanding why the debate won’t make a bit of difference in the outcome of this election.
Both candidates accomplished their goals fairly effectively.
Harris’s job was to make a positive first impression with viewers unfamiliar with her, parry Pence’s punches, and strip the bark off Donald Trump. Twenty minutes in she completely ignored both a Page question (a popular pastime Wednesday night) and Pence’s question-ducking pivot to an attack on the Obama/Biden handling of swine flu with a pivot of her own into a well-rehearsed summary of her life story and resume. As Biden did last week, she repeatedly looked right into the camera and spoke to the voters directly, an effective tactic. She was on-message, projected calmness and sincerity, and had several effective one-liners, such as “if you have a pre-existing condition like heart disease, diabetes or breast cancer, they are coming for you.”
Pence was also calm and composed, surely a welcome contrast for many viewers with last week’s Tasmanian Devil impersonation by the president. He also gave a disciplined, on-message performance, stressing the tax and economic issues that are among the few remaining uses where the ticket still polls well beyond the base while touching on some other Trumpworld favorites like looting and FBI spying. And in classic Pence parallel-universe style, he tried to erase some of the president’s worst blunders – like his open contempt for science and public health experts during the bungled pandemic response – by pretending they never happened.
Who’s what woman in my bed? Honey, what are you talking about?
But fighting to a draw in the context of a race where the opposition is pulling away fast is the political equivalent of an eighth-inning Giancarlo Stanton homer that cuts the losing margin to four. And while the Trump base went to bed drunk and happy, exactly which key group of swing voters were likely to be won over by Pence’s performance?
Women, already lining up to divorce the Donald? Not after he humiliated Page and repeatedly scratched his itch to mansplain the “facts” to Harris.
Black voters? Not after the crocodile tears for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were followed by umbrage at the very notion of systemic racism and a lightning-fast pivot to rioting-and-looting talk.
Seniors? Only if they missed the first half hour of coronavirus discussion, where Harris rubbed about a quart of salt into the gaping political wound that is public perception of White House pandemic management.
The Trump/Pence zeppelin needed a memorable Harris meltdown to get a desperately-needed hydrogen boost.
They didn’t get it. And it was pale hope anyway, given the lack of evidence that vice presidential debates ever have measurable impact on the outcome of the race.
Last night’s boozefest failed to break the pattern.