Russell Berman in The Atlantic:
In perhaps the most chaotic week of a chaotic presidency, what was most surprising about tonight’s vice-presidential debate was how oddly normal it felt.
Five days ago, the president of the United States was hospitalized after contracting a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. There were legitimate questions about whether Donald Trump could execute the powers of his office. In the days since, dozens of people who work in or closely with the White House and the president’s reelection campaign have become infected, including senior officials in the government, the Republican Party, and the U.S. military. The president has proclaimed himself to be “cured” of the virus, but the extent of his illness remains unknown to the public. Meanwhile, Trump has continued to undermine the integrity of the election, refused to commit to relinquishing power if he loses, and, as recently as this afternoon, suggested that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, “shouldn’t be allowed” to even run.
…Trump was, of course, an invisible star of the night. It was his record up for debate, and his name was mentioned, on average, once a minute. But his mere absence transformed the forum into something quieter, more approachable. It served as a reminder that although the fissures in American society that he has exploited predate his arrival as a politician, the chaos of the past four years belongs to him. Trump is the chaos, and without him, there is no chaos. At least that’s the easy answer. When Pence was given a chance to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins, he, too, refused to do so—though in his typical fashion, the answer was a simple deflection, not a veiled threat laden with the suggestion of violence. Trump’s exit won’t erase the deep political disagreements Americans have, nor will it automatically restore the norms he has weakened. But tonight’s debate hinted that, at a minimum, those battles will proceed more civilly.
If that is the main takeaway that viewers have, perhaps the advantage goes to Biden, no matter how effectively Pence made the president’s case tonight. After all, it is Biden who is offering America a return to normalcy—a calmer, yes, even a more boring presidency. Tonight the country saw what that might look like. It watched, in Pence and Harris, a pair of career politicians take the stage once again, offering a window into a world without Donald Trump at its center.