Oh, the Memories of Normal Debates

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Normal feels so strange right now.

The vice-presidential debate last night was notable for many reasons: The largely useless plexiglass shields. The specter of a sitting president infected by a deadly virus. And the anxiety of a country still in the grips of a monthslong crisis.

But what might have been the most striking part of the evening was just how, well, ordinary it all seemed.

Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris battled over climate change and health care, foreign policy and the economy, abortion rights and the Supreme Court.

As candidates have done for decades, they largely dodged the most interesting questions. When asked whether they had discussed safeguards or procedures “when it comes to the issue of presidential disability” — a topical question given the two septuagenarians topping the tickets — both avoided giving an answer.

Mr. Pence refused to say whether he believed voters deserved more information about President Trump’s health, though he praised the “transparency” of his medical team, nor did he commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Ms. Harris refused to answer whether a future Biden administration would pack the Supreme Court as retaliation for Senate Republicans confirming a nominee to the bench — despite Mr. Pence’s best efforts.

“Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed?” demanded Mr. Pence. “I’d like you to answer the question.”

She did not.

Vice-presidential debates rarely shift the dynamics of a race. It’s hard to see how this one will stray from the norm, particularly given how strongly held opinions are of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden.

Of course, there’s a third party competing for our attention in this election: the virus.

On that score, Ms. Harris did better in last night’s debate, opening the evening with a devastating line.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said.

While she executed that attack effectively, Ms. Harris also benefited from having an easier argument to make. Americans know that hundreds of thousands of people have died of the coronavirus in this country. That their lives remain unrecognizable from seven months ago. And that so many are struggling to pay bills, educate children and care for loved ones during an unyielding pandemic.

Mr. Pence essentially argued that voters should re-elect Mr. Trump because things could have been worse. That’s cold comfort to the many Americans who rate the current situation as already bad and likely to get worse. Polling shows that half of Americans believe the worst effects of the pandemic are still ahead. The virus has even infected Mr. Pence’s colleagues.

The vice president cited the decade-old swine flu pandemic to try to convince viewers that Mr. Biden would have mishandled the coronavirus. There’s not enough data to support his largely hypothetical assertion that two million people would have died if that strain of flu had been as deadly as the coronavirus — nor is there much of a political argument. President Barack Obama’s approval ratings remained above water during the outbreak, so most Americans probably do not recall it as a devastating political failure, if they remember it at all.

In his final remarks of the debate, Mr. Pence pleaded for comity, a hard-to-swallow pitch given that he serves under a president who thrives on inflaming the country’s divisions and coming after a debate in which he frequently interrupted Ms. Harris.

The American people “always come together, and are always there for one another in times of need,” Mr. Pence said. “And we’ve especially learned that through the difficulties of this year.”

His words sounded shockingly like the standard political pablum of a previous era. If the Trump campaign wanted to project some sense of normalcy, in the middle of this unending pandemic, Mr. Pence may have accomplished that goal for the 90 minutes of the debate.

But after four years of this administration, we all know it’s only a matter of time until a presidential tweetstorm blows everything up again. The talk of togetherness will seem distant and irrelevant.

Kind of like the swine flu.

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