At Wednesday night's vice presidential debate, senator Kamala Harris taught a master class in how to handle an opponent who won't stop talking over others. Whether you agree with her politics or not, it's an example everyone, especially every woman, can learn from.
Compared with the first presidential debate with its nonstop interruptions, the vice presidential debate was a model of civility, and of the expression of clear ideas. From Harris's repeated insistence that the Trump White House should have alerted Americans to the dangers of Covid-19 earlier than it did to Pence's repeated reminders that Harris had supported the Green New Deal, both were able, experienced debaters who landed effective blows.
But one of the biggest questions, especially for professional women, was how Harris could and should handle things if Pence interrupted or talked over her. That, experts warned, could present a dilemma. Research shows that women who interrupt others are perceived as ruder than men who do the same. And then there's the issue of race. "Because she is a woman of color, she also has to walk that 'Don't look too angry' line," Jennifer Lawless, professor of politics at the University of Virginia told the New York Times in the run-up to the debate.
Both Pence, who hosted his own TV show for years, and Harris, with her decades of experience as a prosecutor, are good at staying calm under pressure. But as the debate got underway, Pence made it clear that once he was speaking, he had no intention of stopping when the moderator told him to. USA Today's Susan Page made repeated attempts to stop him -- "Thank you, Mr. Vice President, your time is up," -- which generally went ignored. Meanwhile Harris more or less stuck to her time slot. That difference showed in the stats. At the end of the first half hour, CNN calculated that Pence had had 13 minutes and 36 seconds of speaking time compared with 12 minutes and 5 seconds for Harris. He had managed to grab nearly a minute and a half extra.
But then Harris fought back. Like Pence, she started ignoring the moderator, at least initially, when told that her time was up. She insisted on having time to respond to Pence's comments, for example when he criticized her record as a prosecutor. And, most notably, she gracefully shut down Pence's interruptions multiple times by simply saying, "Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking." Each time, she said it forcefully, but pleasantly, with a firm nod. She turned to the moderator and the camera, rather than engaging with him further. Then she went right on with what she was saying. He was left with little choice but to back down.
It worked. By the end of the debate, CNN calculated that the two had virtually equal time, with Harris's total speaking time at 36 minutes and 24 seconds, and Pence's total only 3 seconds more. And Harris didn't do her own public image any harm in defending herself -- in fact, she did the opposite. In a CNN poll of registered voters after the debate, 59 percent said they thought Harris had won, although that might partly reflect political preferences, since the Biden-Harris ticket is ahead in national polls by an average 9.5 percentage points and CNN's poll respondents skewed slightly toward Democrats. But it's worth noting that Harris's debate performance boosted public opinion of her, with 63 percent saying they viewed her favorably after the debate, up from 56 percent beforehand. Pence's approval rating among survey responses was 41 percent both before and after the debate.
Not only that, well before the debate ended, "I'm speaking," hats, t-shirts, stickers, mugs and other items were available for purchase on Etsy, and Harris had won praise from some very high-profile women.
Does all this mean that the rudeness double standard for women is now a thing of the past, and female candidates, entrepreneurs, and business leaders can jump right in to conversations as forcefully as men do without being seen as strident or "unlikable"? Unfortunately, probably not. But it does show that, at least some of the time, a self-possessed woman who sticks up for herself without losing her cool can be forceful without anyone thinking less of her. That's good news for us all.