Questions Unanswered: US Vice-presidential debate review

Published on 8 October 2020 at 15:32

“Americans deserve a debate which is civil” began moderator Susan Page. This certainly was a more civil affair than last week’s first presidential ‘debate’, but last night’s vice-presidential debate threw out similarly few points of note for undecided voters to choose between.


The debate began strongly for Sen. Kamala Harris. The stark facts and strong questioning from moderator Susan Page made it difficult for Vice President Pence to defend the government’s record in tackling the coronavirus. When asked if she would take a coronavirus vaccine Harris agreed that if that was approved by medical professionals, she would but that “if Donald Trump tells us we should take it I’m not taking it.”


Unfortunately, this was really the last time any candidate directly answered a question put to them. Pence in particular would often speak glowingly of Trump to begin with then pivot back to the previous question to try and attack Joe Biden’s record on the issue. This initially played into Harris’ hands as the free for all allowed her to make some of her most effective attacks. Harris raised the recent New York Times report that Donald Trump had only paid £750 in federal tax, questioning who the president owed money to and how that would affect his decision making.


However, as the debate wore on, she noticeably held back on several issues allowing Pence to speak calmly and slowly in such a way that appeared to take longer than it did. Harris dominated the speaking time in the debate but used that time poorly. As the economy and foreign policy were discussed Harris avoided obvious attacks to instead focus on the previous work of former president Obama alongside Biden. This handed initiative to Pence. When asked about American leadership Pence invoked Kayla Mueller, a human rights activist killed in Syria by ISIS and whose parents attended the debate. He spoke of Obama and Biden’s failure to act quick enough and of Trump’s achievement in defeating ISIS.


One of the candidates standing on the vice-presidential debate stage was a former prosecutor. One was not. That it was difficult to pick which one it was is perhaps evidence of the democrats’ soft strategy in this debate. Harris even lost when asked about the environment, allowing herself to be locked into Pence’s repeated questioning over Biden’s commitment to fracking. Environmental issues rarely feature prominently in presidential debates, that it became about who would be more likely to continue fracking will disappoint voters who consider it such an important issue.


The moderator herself perhaps contributed to the messiness of the debate. The age-old retort “You haven’t answered my question” did not feature once, and Pence began to talk over Harris repeatedly toward the end. When asked about Roe v Wade and packing the court, Pence made his pro-life views clear. Rather than defend a woman’s right to choose, Harris instead tried to bring up the example of Abraham Lincoln waiting to appoint Supreme court justices. This went over poorly as Pence continually interrupted with questions of democrats packing the court.


Harris did end the stronger. When asked about Breonna Taylor, Pence instead pivoted to a predictable attack on ‘rioters and looters’ in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Given her legal background Harris was always going to emerge the victor on law and order and was also able to speak of systemic inequalities in America’s justice system. All Pence could muster was a denial that systemic racism existed.


The debate ended with Pence calling for Americans to come together. This falls particularly flat given current divisions caused by President Trump. Harris by contrast spoke of Joe Biden’s history of ‘lifting people up and fighting for their dignity’. She spoke of a bright future fighting for all. A nice note to end what may be the last in-person debate following The Debate Commission’s decision this morning to make the next debate a virtual affair. Trump’s subsequent announcement that he will not “waste my time on a virtual debate” may yet make it the final debate.


So, who won the debate?


This may largely depend on your alliances, but tonight will do little to move those who are still on the fence. Kamala Harris probably gave the stronger performance overall, but that was almost a given going into the debate given her superior oratory ability and background as a former prosecutor. However, Harris simply did not make this advantage count. A soft strategy with soft attacks allowed Pence to either evade serious questioning, or pivot to issues that were more helpful to him than they were to Harris.


Mike Pence by contrast gave a run-of-the-mill statesmanlike performance which left him unscathed. No real stand-out moments but no blunders either, Pence gave the safe performance afforded to him by his status as incumbent. He did fail to defend the indefensible, however this may largely be lost on those who are already hardened Trump supporters.


What is clear is that the real winner here is a fly that spent a solid two minutes stuck to Mike Pence’s hair! Perhaps asleep as Pence droned on about looting, the fly got itself a Twitter account that quickly amassed 21000 followers before Twitter took it down. A brief moment of fun in a presidential season and political atmosphere otherwise sadly lacking it.


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