Or it might be remembered for searing attacks not just on opposing plans but on entirely different portrayals of the past and visions of the near future, amid a pandemic that seldom has felt more urgent.
At a moment of intense focus on the health of a president, and with two historically old candidates topping the ticket, the running mates engaged in an emotional and highly personal debate – just one lacking the insults and outsized personalities of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
If the debate felt removed from the wild events of recent days, both candidates still brought emotional heft to the crisis that is clearly defining the presidential race and so much more.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, said in her first exchange of the night. “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you… They knew and they covered it up.”
Vice President Mike Pence responded with a tone less of anger than of disappointment. He laid out an argument where swift action from Trump prevented even more deaths from COVID-19.
“From the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” Pence said.
Pence was also quick to suggest that Biden and Harris could risk lives by undermining confidence in a vaccine, after Harris said she wouldn’t take one based on Trump’s word.
“Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” Pence said.
That Pence could deliver a line like that at a moment like this speaks to his discipline as a candidate – discipline that Trump famously lacks.
The president, of course, is currently in isolation at the White House, having himself contracted coronavirus amid a series of official and campaign events that flouted his own administration’s guidelines. Trump is now suggesting not only that the pandemic shouldn’t dominate people’s lives, but also that a vaccine and even a cure is near.
Wednesday’s debate was civil in comparison to last Tuesday’s insult-filled mess featuring Trump and Biden. Still, just underneath the civility was concern and even contempt for the policies being espoused by the other ticket.
On the economy, Pence said electing Biden and Harris would mean vast new taxes in a time of economic recovery. He repeatedly brought up the “Green New Deal” plan for climate change, which Biden last week specifically said would not be part of his policy platform.
“The American comeback is on the ballot,” Pence said.
On health care, Harris looked directly at the camera to point out that Trump and Pence want to invalidate Obamacare, which includes guarantees of health care for those with pre-existing conditions.
“If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they're coming for you,” Harris said.
On foreign policy, Pence echoed the president in blaming China for the spread of COVID-19.
“Joe Biden’s been a cheerleader for Communist China,” the vice president said.
Harris offered a vastly different take: “The Trump administration's perspective and approach to China has resulted in the loss of American lives, American jobs and America's standing.”
And on the issue of race relations, Pence called suggestions of “systemic racism” in America a “great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”
Harris, the first woman of color ever to appear in a debate like this, shot back with a reminder that Trump failed to condemn white supremacists as recently as last week’s debate.
“America, you deserve better,” she said.
The debate boiled down to fundamental and vast differences of point of view, with life-or-death consequences portrayed by both candidates. Questions of safety and security loom large in a race where both sides have described the fate of the nation itself as on the line.
Still, the debate felt somehow removed from this wild moment in Washington and across America. With the president potentially returning to the campaign trail as soon as next week, and vowing to be at the next debate, Trump will surely set the campaign pace again.
Just because the one and only vice-presidential debate was quieter doesn’t make it less important. Taking out the giant personalities of the campaign doesn’t change the stakes of the race.