Dear Commons Community,
The Vice Presidential Debate last night (see video above for highlights courtesy of CNBC) was a much more civilized affair than the Presidential Debate of two weeks ago. Kamala Harris and Mike Pence showed much more decorum and respect for the event than President Trump did which allowed for less interfering and hearing more about what the two parties had to say. Susan Page, the debate moderator, controlled the exchanges much better than did Chris Wallace, the Presidential Debate Moderator. However, Page never followed up any of her questions when the speakers decided to avoid answering them which was often. This was also more of a debate about policy and less about personalities.
I thought Harris landed a couple of blows especially when asked about taking a vaccine for coronavirus and what the Trump Administration knew back in January about its dangers as per Bob Woodward’s book, Rage. Later on when asked if she would take a vaccine, she said that “..if Anthony Fauci recommended it, I would be the first on line for it. If only Donald Trump recommended it, I wouldn’t take it.” She also was strong in criticizing Trump’s comments about our men and women in the military as well as those about white supremacy. Pence was strong in discussing the economy and in hammering away at Biden’s plan to pack the US Supreme Court. Harris did not reply to the latter.
Below is a recap of key takeaways courtesy of the New York Times and other media.
I rated the debate a tie.
Kamala kept the focus on the pandemic
As the most important topic in the country, COVID-19 was, predictably, the first question of the night: What would a Biden-Harris administration do to combat the pandemic that a Trump-Pence administration wouldn’t? Just as predictably, Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, answered the way she’s always said she would: by prosecuting the case against Trump.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said. “Here are the facts: 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months. Over 7 million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed.”
Citing the revelatory recordings from the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, Harris went on to accuse Trump and Pence of knowing “on Jan. 28” that the virus is “lethal in consequence, that it is airborne, that it will affect young people,” but “cover[ing] it up” because they wanted Americans to remain “calm.”
“Can you imagine if you knew on Jan. 28 what they knew … what you would have done to prepare?” Harris asked the audience. “How calm were you when you were panicked about where you were going to get your next roll of toilet paper? How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school, and you didn’t know when they would go back? How calm were you when your children couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid they could kill them?”
During the Democratic primary, Harris was more focused on manufacturing memorable moments than hammering home a message. Remember, she initially captured the national spotlight when her barbed interrogations of Trump’s Cabinet appointees were cut into viral videos highlighting her prosecutorial prowess — and that’s largely how she’s conducted herself on the trail (just as when she launched into Biden on busing).
But Wednesday night was different. Again and again, Harris skillfully dodged questions that it wasn’t in Joe Biden’s best interest to answer: on China, on presidential disability, on expanding the size of the Supreme Court. (Pence did the same when asked if he’d want Indiana to outlaw all abortions.) Instead, whenever the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, tried to ask about other topics, Harris always pivoted back to the pandemic — and the possible fallout of Trump’s efforts to axe the Affordable Care Act, including the end of protections for pre-existing conditions.
Her mission was clear: Remind voters (as she repeated at least a half dozen times) that “over 210,000” Americans have died from COVID-19. Her message was even clearer: Trump and Pence had their chance to keep you safe — and they failed.
Pence tried to smooth Trump’s rough edges
Pence probably had the more challenging goal on Wednesday: To try to make his divisive boss, who is disapproved of by a majority of Americans and trailing by double digits in the latest election polls, palatable to the remaining persuadable voters who could still tip the election to the Republican ticket.
As usual, the mild-mannered Hoosier devoted himself to the task at hand with all the aw-shucks moxie he could muster, and his smooth affect came in handy as he methodically attempted to sand the rough edges off every controversial aspect of Trump’s record.
The New York Times report that Trump only paid $750 in federal income taxes during his first year as president? Pence countered that it was simply a sign that, as a businessman, Trump had dedicated his life to creating “tens of thousands of American jobs.”
That maskless Rose Garden announcement ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, which has since been tied to a growing cluster of COVID-19 cases in and around the White House? Just another example of how “President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.”
Trump’s reluctance to condemn white supremacists during the first presidential debate? Nothing but more evidence of how “the media” chooses to “selectively edit” a president who “respects and cherishes all of the American people.”
Trump seemed happy with Pence’s performance. “Mike Pence is doing GREAT!” he tweeted at one point. “Mike Pence WON BIG!” he added later. And it’s not hard to see why: The vice president did his level best to reframe the abnormalities of Trump’s presidency in the ho-hum terms and tone of everyday American politics, while also arguing that Biden would be worse.
But the question now is whether Pence’s efforts will make any difference. Nothing this year has discernibly changed the public’s opinion of Trump — not impeachment, not a racial reckoning in the streets, not even a global pandemic. Instead, those events seem to have solidified the president’s high disapproval rating and low standing in the polls.
It’s unlikely that one measured debate performance by his running mate will shift many votes.
Harris didn’t tolerate Pence’s interruptions
During last week’s presidential debate, Trump was responsible for more than three-quarters of the interruptions: 71, compared with Biden’s 22.
The event was an unintelligible, chaotic mess because of it.
Harris, however, seemed to arrive in Salt Lake City on Wednesday with a plan: to jump down Pence’s throat the second he made so much as a peep during her turn to talk.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” the senator said, when Pence tried to contradict her remarks on COVID-19. “I’m speaking.”
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” she said when he tried to interject as she was discussing the Supreme Court. “I’m speaking.”
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” she said when he accused her of lying about the economy.
“It would be important if you said the truth,” Pence snapped.
“If you don’t mind letting me finish,” Harris snapped back, “we can then have a conversation, OK?’
Ultimately, Pence interrupted Harris 10 times — twice as much as she interrupted him, according to CBS News. But the debate never spun out of control, in part because Harris was so swift to call Pence out.
The tactic also had another, subtler effect. One of the most interesting questions heading into the debate was how Harris’s gender and race — she’s the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket — would influence the dynamic onstage. Would viewers stereotype her as “an angry black woman” if she was too assertive? According to Axios, Harris’s advisers “studied research about the different ways men and women are judged in public speaking.” They apparently concluded that Harris would look strong if she stuck up for herself — even as she took care to avoid any big rhetorical risks or made-for-TV moments.