It takes nights like tonight to understand just how divorced the Republican establishment has become from reality. For four years, most of that establishment has lived in a dysfunctional relationship with Donald Trump. Trump is both savior and doomslayer of the Republican Party, and he is loved and loathed in equal part for both roles.
After Trump’s shock election, the Republican Party hoped the electricity would jolt it back to life. The premise was that after using Trump for a jumpstart, a revitalized Republican Party would ride a racially-realigned electorate to a series of momentum building electoral college victories. Trump could then be jettisoned, and the Republican Party could continue as it had in the past.
Well, that last part turned out to be true but not in the way the Republican establishment believed. What it presented as one-time, quick-hit political pornography—the World’s Most Orange Man Does Washington—turned out to be addictive. The MAGA base can’t stop hitting refresh.
The result is a Biden lead that lies somewhere between massive and awe-inspiring. And that lead is cemented by three emerging voter groups: women, seniors, and 18-30 year olds. And so, there should be no wonder whom Kamala Harris intended to target tonight during the debate.
If you don’t think that Harris therefore spent all week discussing, focus grouping, polling, and thinking about what those groups wanted to hear and how they wanted to hear it, you would be—well, you would be a Republican consultant. Apparently they were flush about Pence’s performance after the debate ended, if only because he didn’t eat the furniture. One claimed that “if you have Republicans who are in doubt about Trump and the direction of the party, the vice president could help bring people around.” Another claimed Harris was “over prepared and bad,” and a third claimed Pence “smoked her.”
But could there be any doubt that an unctuous, interrupting, mansplaining, moral cipher would win rave reviews from Republican consultants? Republican consultants are in the business of getting unctuous, interrupting, mansplaining, moral ciphers elected to office. In Pence, they see raw material.
But gratefully, it appears to be too late. CNN’s snap poll after the debate—carried by Pence over Tim Kaine in 2016–found Harris a 59%-38% winner over Pence. That margin was driven by women—a full 70% of them believed Harris won the debate. Harris’s favorability rating climbed from 56% to 63%. Pence’s stayed stagnant at 41%. Harris was rated more effective at uniting the country (62-34%), more in touch with people’s needs (61%-38%), and in expressing her positions with clarity (57%-39%).
Pence’s lone “win?” 56% of respondents believed he spent more time attacking his opponent. But Americans are tired of Republican obsession with battle and carnage, turning that into a disadvantage. Women see little merit in the competitive social Darwinism that dominates modern Republican economics, nor do they buy that Republican cries of “law and order” serve as anything but excuses for state-sanctioned street battle. Indeed, natural selection has even become the Republican response to COVID—Trump’s Aryan, horse-racing genes are better than your relatives’ genes. Make Eugenics Great Again. Women in this country have grieved too much over the dead, dying, and debilitated to buy any of this.
Under other circumstances, one might understand how Republican consultants, who have seen ugly combat tactics work to their advantage for years, would be slow to accept their demise. But how do they not see? In 2016, Donald Trump rode his angry, pussy-grabbing, racist strongman act into the White House on a wave of white male grievance. Like for like. But after the death, carnage, cruelty, and destruction of this administration, women understand they have the votes to pull the plug on this laboratory mutation. And Kamala Harris is one of them. Like for like.
Trump is the most malignantly transgressive figure to ever burden American politics. But Americans should remember that not every transgressive act need be toxic. By ignoring Pence’s baiting, condescension, rule-breaking, interruption, and filibustering, Harris did tonight by other means what Trump did in 2016: Connect with her audience. And if Republicans insist on turning this into a measuring contest, I’d bet you hers is bigger.