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Artillery Row

Biden and Harris need an answer on court packing

The vice presidential debate revealed a weakness in the Biden campaign

The context for last night’s vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris is an election that is fast slipping away from Donald Trump. The president trails Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, by around ten percentage points in national polls and is behind in the polling average in every major battleground state.

An undercard fight was always very unlikely to change that. After such an enervating few weeks of news — the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump’s leaked tax returns, the bad-tempered first presidential debate, a White House Covid-19 outbreak and the president’s hospitalisation — it felt like a sideshow. And it is not going to shift the President’s dire position in the polls or the fundamental dynamics of the race. 

Indeed, the most striking thing about last night’s debate was how different it felt from the rest of the campaign: a substantive discussion in which both candidates managed full sentences, even if they tended to talk past one another and were let off the hook for non-answers to difficult questions.

But what, if anything, will live in voters’ minds for longer than 24 hours?

The most politically significant moment was when Kamala Harris failed to give a clear answer on court packing. Last week, Trump’s interruptions let Biden off the hook when it came to the question of whether he supported adding extra justices to the Supreme Court. Last night, Harris got no closer to elucidating the Democratic ticket’s position on the matter.

Throughout this election cycle, Biden has stuck to the old-timey and underrated strategy of occupying the centre ground, contrasting himself with both Trump’s excesses and his own party’s left wing.  So far, it has worked. The Trump campaign’s attacks haven’t stuck because of the very obvious fact that, though there are radicals in the Democratic Party, Biden very obviously isn’t one of them.

However, the plumbing of American democracy — the composition of the Supreme Court and the Senate filibuster in particular — is one area where Biden has allowed some uncertainty to creep in. Expect to hear a lot more about these issues from Republicans in the coming weeks because, for now, neither Biden nor Harris have a good answer.

The next most significant moment may have been when a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head. (The vice president bravely soldiered on.)

More generally, and more seriously, Pence is an underrated performer on stages like this. An expert in faux earnestness, he delivered decidedly un-Trumpy defence of the Trump presidency. He drew sharp contrasts with Harris on the economy, taxes and the Supreme Court. He elided the Trump administration’s failings in response to the coronavirus with unnerving effortlessness. For all the stylistic contrast with the president, Pence delivered a loyal performance, sticking to Trump’s line on not necessarily accepting the result of the election and, with his own shiny red tie, even taking a fashion cue from the commander in chief.

For all that last night’s debate struck a different note to the rest of the campaign, the dynamics of this election feel inescapable: a disciplined challenger sticking to a core message he knows works and a go-with-his-gut incumbent whose instincts served him well four years ago but are proving less useful this time around. 

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