The Vice-Presidential Debates and Their Implications

The Vice-Presidential Debates and Their Implications

Maura Mulholland, Managing Editor

On October 7th, two of the foremost figures in the 2020 presidential race faced off in the vice-presidential debate. Many viewers tuned in expecting a knock-out, drag-down fight like the first presidential debate, but this week’s debate could almost be described as “civil”.

The debate started out with the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, establishing quite firmly the rules she expected to be followed. It took the candidates about seven minutes to break them, with Vice President Pence interrupting Senator Harris, to which she rebuked sharply, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” At multiple points in the debate, each candidate demanded more time from the moderator or spoke over her to finish their sentiment. The raw, personal nature of the race for the White House is evident at every level in both campaigns, and both parties see this as a race for the very heart of America.

As a result, the American people featured very heavily in the debate. Senator Harris, like her running mate former Vice President Joe Biden, often took the liberty of speaking directly to the camera, engaging viewers watching the debate from their homes. Vice President Pence did not do this as much, answering questions instead to the moderator or to the small audience directly witnessing the debate. This is a pattern in their respective campaigns. At last week’s presidential debate some of candidate Joe Biden’s most powerful moments were when he spoke into the camera, ignoring and sometimes silencing a baffled President Trump. Vice President Pence and his running mate did verbally acknowledge “the American people” at several points during their debates, but neither directly addressed the American public in such a forthright manner as the Democratic nominees.

In terms of policy, there was actually a bit discussed, a deviation from the presidential debate which was largely a shout-off as President Trump repeatedly interrupted former Vice President Biden, recounting family drama and conservative talking points. There wasn’t a lot of new information regarding conservative policy from Vice President Pence, who mostly used his time to talk down Senator Harris’s former policies, political career, and the assumed consequences of environmental laws for the American worker. The senator presented rebuttals in the form of definitive plans regarding increased public healthcare, continued access to abortion, police reform, and environmentalism.

The pandemic was brought up in the debate and Pence was put on the defense as Senator Harris attacked his poor work as head of the pandemic response team. The ineffectiveness of the Trump administration in responding to the pandemic has been a central point of the Biden campaign, and Harris stated that a national response was required and would be implemented if Biden was elected president. Pence’s response was that Biden had “plagiarized” the Trump administration’s pandemic response plan (certified false by the New York Times) and that the American people had responded admirably to the state mandates put in place. He implied no national response was needed and the states had been effective at individual enforcement. The United States is behind only Brazil and Spain in terms of developed countries who have been devastated by the virus.

Senator Harris was also evasive about a question Vice President Pence threw at her. He came after her and Biden’s opposition to the appointment of Judge Amy Barrett to the Supreme Court and accused the Biden campaign of “packing the court” or adding more justices, who would support their more liberal policies, essentially changing the rules when they weren’t working for their agenda. In response, Senator Harris recounted a story from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln was faced with an opening in the Supreme Court while running for reelection, and instead of immediately filling the vacancy, Lincoln declared the winner of the election would. While not directly addressing the issue of packing the court, this puts a lot of pressure on Pence and the Trump administration to emulate an almost deified president, and to demonstrate confidence in their campaign by waiting to appoint a new justice.

Both candidates also avoided questions about the age of their running-mates. As Moderator Page pointed out early in the debate, whichever presidential candidate wins will make history by becoming the oldest American president ever elected to office. Both are near octogenarians. Though Pence avoided discussing the president’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis and its implications, and Harris emphasized Biden’s modernity and alignment with the American people, either vice presidential candidate could easily become president within the next four years.

Though the debate was mostly a recitation of partisan talking points and one conspicuous incident where a fly landed on Vice President Pence and remained there for four minutes, it did sound more like a debate than the messy presidential argument last week. Recent reports say that President Trump has refused to participate in a virtual debate, which the next one had been planned to be, so who knows if another face-off between the presidential candidates will happen? In any case, the race seems more divided than ever and the vice-presidential debate shows that tensions continue to rise on both sides.