The debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence was so ho-hum -- at least compared to Trump vs. Biden last week -- that the biggest talking point was the fly that landed on Pence's head for two minutes. "If the stakes were higher than usual in this debate," says James Poniewozik, "the temperature was lower, at least compared with the steam-blast sauna of the first Trump-Biden debate. The battle was fought with smiles and passive aggression, not tantrums and insults. There was an alternative-reality aspect to the debate. Mr. Pence was the sort of candidate you might imagine if the Republicans had nominated a more establishment conservative in 2016. Ms. Harris is who you might expect if the Democrats had picked a nominee more representative of their young, multiracial and female constituencies. Squint your eyes, ignore the plexiglass and it was almost as if we were living in something like normal times. The debate was contentious, evasive and often frustrating, but within the range of recognizable politics rather than an MMA fight."
The fly, the real winner of the debate, rendered everything that happened irrelevant: "If I don’t lead with the fly, then what’s the point of all this?" says Hank Stuever. For two whole minutes, while an entire nation looked on in wonder and wicked amusement. The fly won the debate, and here’s the thing: The fly deserved to. Because that is how useless the debates have become as a function of television. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which should have done the responsible thing and canceled the in-person event after last week’s atrocious — and possibly infectious — display at the presidential debate in Cleveland, needs to look long and hard at its beloved TV format and how it has devolved into something uncivil, unproductive and unnecessary."
The debate was an uncomfortable spectacle of unconscious gendered dynamics playing out in real time: "Well before The Fly became the meme moment an hour into the debate, all semblance of normalcy had already been defenestrated," says Inkoo Kang. "From the very start of the 90-minute event at the University of Utah, Pence did his version of Trump’s aggro-gorilla performance in the first presidential debate last week, talking over or interrupting his debate opponent and generally steamrolling moderator Susan Page of USA Today, whose sharp questions he reliably ignored. (Page, for her part, let herself be steamrolled.)"
Moderator Susan Page was the debate's biggest loser: "It was a little unclear before the vice presidential debate whether USA Today journalist Susan Page should be moderating it," says Dylan Matthews. "Page had thrown an off-the-record party celebrating two Trump administration appointees, including Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma, who billed the government for services related to the event. Verma was recruited into the Trump administration after serving in a similar role in Indiana for then-Gov. Mike Pence. It seemed … odd, to say the least, to have a journalist who had recently partied with a close Pence associate moderating a debate featuring him, even if the party was the nonpartisan celebration of women in government that Page and USA Today claimed it was. But after the debate, it’s obvious that Page left something to be desired as a moderator. Page spent the better part of the evening simply reading questions off a piece of paper, and loosely enforcing time limits between Harris and Pence....The biggest cost of this strategy was that Page simply kept letting the candidates not answer the questions she had posed. Pence rightly pointed out that Harris dodged a question about court-packing — but Pence had totally dodged Page’s question asking if he’d support a state-level ban on abortions in Indiana, should Roe v. Wade be overturned."