Review Of The Pence-Harris Debate


Ninety minutes, nine topics, two candidates and one date in mind. As the 3rd November draws closer so too has the formalities in the lead up to the defining day. Readers should not forget that the election itself has already begun via mail-ins, but there is still some time before the ultimate day of reckoning. Albeit slightly tamer, with both seated and of course socially distanced, the first vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and vice president Mike Pence offered a return to civility on the debating stage after last week's caricature of three and half years of bickering and discord.


Neither created any moments which would eternally resonate with the opposition camp and this was likely intentional. For Senator Harris and the Democrats who came into the debate carrying a 10 point lead in the polls, there will have been an acute awareness of the need to maintain the status quo. For Mike Pence and the Republicans though, the outlook in the lead up to the event was significantly more precarious. The context of the pandemic which has seen 210,000 Americans lose their lives, and the black lives matter protests which continue to fill the 24 hours news cycle has been compounded by revelations regarding Donald Trump's tax returns and the more recent news that the President has now tested positive for covid-19.

Perhaps it's a reflection of the short-sighted media frenzy that the latter two have appeared to hinder the current administration most over the last weeks, but at a time in which pressure continues to mount and questions arrive from all sides concerning the President's health, the brief for a successful night for Mike Pence and the Republican party would surely have placed stability at the forefront of any outcome.

The vice president, much like the many who have gone before him, knows that he will not be the singular force behind any eventual triumph. He is not the Republican’s trump card in this race - that role is already filled, but he will have known that more than most nights, yesterday’s performance would require a steady hand.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Though the debate was overwhelmingly civil the difference in perspective over how the nation had and should be run was immediately clear. Senator Harris began strongly in her assessment of the government's handling of the pandemic, describing it as ‘the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country’. The number of deaths (210,000) is the highest in the world and close to 1/3rd more than the next closest, Brazil. This is not only reflective of the size of the nation either, with its death toll as a percentage of the population standing 2 ½ times that of its neighbouring Canada. 7.5 million individuals have contracted the disease and it is estimated that up to 30 million Americans have had to file for unemployment since the onset of the virus.

"the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country" - Kamala Harris on the Trump administrations handling of the virus.

The vice president's response was not to defend the indefensible but instead reframe the discussion entirely. He focused on the opposition's inability to formulate what he described as a credible alternative to his administration's blueprint, going as far as to suggest the Biden Harris strategy bordered on plagiarism. Ultimately though this was never a matter for which he was ever going to shake perception, not in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The inability to ensure that the adequate protocols and procedures were in place nationwide had drawn condemnation from International onlookers and as Senator Harris was quick to point out, is illustrative of the Trump administration's oversight and negligence.

Bob Woodhouse's recent book reveals as much. It tells of a meeting which took place in late January that saw a national security adviser warn President Trump of what would be the "biggest national security threat you face in your presidency." This, alongside the recently released Woodward tapes, show that the President had known of the severity of the virus since at least January, and potentially earlier depending on differing reports. For Kamals Harris, this was only more evidence of what she described as the "ineptitude of an administration unwilling to speak the truth to the American people".


Bob Woodward's book had revealed earlier knowledge of the virus than previously thought.


Both side-stepped the question of 'Presidential disability' altogether. Given the age of both candidates and after a week in which the President's health has drawn sharp focus on the potential fragility of both candidates, the moderator asked whether there were safeguards for both Trump, 74 and Biden, 77. Instead, Pence spent his two minutes focusing on the opposition's failings, pointing toward the swine flu epidemic in 2009 and drawing hypothetical comparisons to the potential impact it could have had, had it been comparably lethal to Covid-19. He also returned to the previous topic at hand and the administration's belief that a vaccine will be found by the end of the year. This was his second reference to 'Operation warp speed' and it's apparent potential to lead to "tens of millions of doses of vaccine" before the end of this year".

Senator Harris on the other hand chose to focus on her history with Biden and her achievements in public office. When asked whether voters deserved to know both candidates' health records, Pence eulogised over Trump's 'exceptional report' while Harris provided a firm "absolutely" before broadening the point to the wider need for ‘transparency across the board’.

Before they discussed the economy there was an olive branch of recognition from Pence. He congratulated Senator Harris on her position as a vice presidential candidate and her career in public life, but it was clear that this was a topic neither wished to invest a substantial amount of time into.

The remainder of the debate covered the usual red button issues. The economy, climate change, China and the increasingly important state of the Supreme Court were all mentioned. Among the number of points which were traded back and forth was the matter of law enforcement's relationship with minorities. Pence criticised Harris’ record as a District Attorney and how of those affected, it was black people who were disproportionately impacted during her time in San Francisco. Yet, this arrived only moments after rejecting the idea of systemic racism altogether and going as far to dismiss the idea of law enforcement bias against minorities as 'a great insult to law enforcement.'


Despite months of protests, vice president Mike Pence dismissed the idea of any sort of bias from law enforcement when dealing with minorities.


Maintaining the status quo

As the debate closed It was difficult to shake the feeling that the needle had not moved too far in either direction. Of the two candidates Kamala Harris was the more introspective as well as forward thinking which seems to also be reflected by fivethirtyeight's analysis of the affair. If either vice presidential nominee has the potential to influence voters positively it would appear to be her, but it is right to point out that on the night, the dynamics of the debate were probably in her favour due to the pandemic. Moreover, the main Democratic candidate has not been as embroiled in scandal as Trump on this occasion. Even accounting for these factors though, where execution and reasoning were concerned she was simply stronger for much of the night. It should not be forgotten either, that the issues in which the Republican ticket are having to defend are largely issues of their own making.

A little ground may have been made on the side of the democrats, but the performance reaffirmed the perception that this is a level of governance for which Kamala Harris is well suited for - potentially even as a frontrunner. Her career in public office is long and there's an astuteness to her at the debate stage which compensates for Biden's strong willed but at times uncoordinated approach. Her resoluteness to being interrupted and her insistence on reminding 'Mr Vice president' that 'I'm speaking' will have not gone over the heads of many viewers.

On the other hand, for Mike Pence and the Republicans, little ground was lost. It was a performance for which he was largely expected to be on the back foot and this was what ultimately materialised. There was the occasional jab to relieve pressure both at Senator Harris' record during her time as DA and several claims regarding taxes, some of which were less true than others. Of those that were more truthful (if that's even a thing) was the claim that the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings in taxes. The White Houses Council of Economic Advisers states that the typical family of four did experience a tax cut of $2,000. Yet, as Alan Rappeport of the NY Times highlights, this was hardly equitable given that the bulk of these cuts benefitted high earners, while many of the individual tax cuts that allowed for this would expire in 2025 unless renewed.

Less true, was the claim that "on day one Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes." In reality, as was clarified repeatedly and has been done beforehand, this is a policy which would only affect the 1% of Americans earning more than $400,000. Ultimately though he was consistent in conveying the key messaging which had already been laid out by Donald Trump on the big themes.

This was 'steadiness' of a sort and it was what he would have looked for before the start of the night, even if it featured a number of false claims.

The next debate will see the return of the leading candidates as both running mates return to the background. There is a possibility that the upcoming virtual debate will be more conducive to bringing the encounter in line with the sort of one we witnessed on Thursday. In any case, there is still much to be decided before November 3.

Mayowa Ayodele


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