In a refreshing change from the first presidential debate, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris were merely evasive. The vice-presidential candidates interrupted each other so little and engaged in name-calling so rarely that they appeared positively statesmanlike by comparison.
But there were more questions dodged than answered. Harris had no explanation for why the Biden-Harris website touts the Green New Deal even as Joe Biden says he doesn't support it. She refused to say whether the Democrats would pack the Supreme Court. Mike Pence had no answer for why the U.S. ranks so high among countries in per-capita deaths from COVID-19. He filled in no details about how the Trump administration would make good on its many promises to protect people with pre-existing conditions if its lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act succeeds.
Some questions found both eager to change the subject. Neither wanted to address one of the most fundamental questions for any vice president: what to do if the president is incapacitated. And both candidates declined the opportunity to get specific on abortion, with Pence silent on what Indiana should do in a post-Roe vs. Wade world and Harris unwilling to say whether abortion should ever be restricted.
Harris and Pence were both, however, extremely disciplined in their non-answers, especially compared to Trump and Biden in the previous debate. They had a clear sense of their mission, which was primarily to attack the other side's presidential candidate. Defending their own running mates was a distant second.
And so Harris's attack on the Trump administration over COVID-19 was stronger than Pence's response, which asked us to think about a counterfactual world where the swine flu of 2009-10 had the fatality rate of the current pandemic. The Obama-Biden administration, Pence said, just got lucky. Even if true, it's hard to see how it would change any American's evaluation of how Trump has performed in the face of the virus we actually have. Pence, meanwhile, had a sharp critique of Biden's environmental plans, and the economic damage they might do, and Harris flailed in response.
The savvy thing to say about vice-presidential debates is that they don't matter. It's true that they rarely affect many votes. If the polls are right in projecting a Trump defeat, though, perhaps this one will be a portent of what politics might look like after Trump leaves the White House. Pence gave a performance that Trump's fans could cheer without giving a Trumpy performance. He didn't attack Harris's intelligence, or spread conspiracy theories, or attack any religious or ethnic group. He got in the typical Republican shots against the media without whining about how poorly he has been treated.
Pence might not be the face of a post-Trump Republican party, and on some issues — such as trade — he has shifted his views. But a lot of what makes Trump Trump may be inimitable. We just saw two career politicians bobbing and weaving past tough questions and slamming each other for familiar ideological reasons. We may have caught a glimpse of a kind of normality that could reassert itself faster than we think.
Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.