If you were looking for another political showdown, this was not it. Wednesday’s debate featured Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris. The candidates sat at podiums on opposite sides of the debate stage, with two panels of plexiglass between them. This was the only time we will see the vice-presidential candidates share a debate stage during this election cycle.
Susan Page of USA Today moderated the vice-presidential debate, kicking off the event with a message to each candidate iterating the importance of debate conduct. She looked squarely at each candidate and stated, “We want a debate that is lively, a discussion that is civil.”
This debate covered a lot of ground. The debate topics were not released to the candidates or their campaign teams ahead of the debate. Moderator Susan Page asked pointed questions to each of the candidates regarding their past political records and plans to move forward if their party were to be elected to the presidential office.
Topics of Wednesday’s debate included coronavirus preparedness, the president’s financial information, Senator Harris’ political record, America’s relationship with China, the current administration’s sentiments toward law enforcement, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, tax plans, and climate change. Where the previous debate was a matter of who could shout over one another the loudest, this debate was a matter of who could avoid answering the questions they didn’t want to answer.
To start the debate, Vice President Pence was asked by Page, “Why is the death toll higher than that of almost any other country.” Pence pivoted from the question saying, “Our nation has gone through a challenging time… from the very first day. President Trump had put the health of America first.”
In the wake of President Trump and his staff testing positive with the virus, it was assumed that Harris would use her platform to make a clear and obvious statement against how the Trump administration has handled the coronavirus.
Harris, a former California prosecutor, is no stranger to speaking against something she believes is harmful. In the case of last evening’s debate, Harris was ready to call out the Trump administration for oversights and negligence toward the American people. Vice President Pence presented himself as the representative for the Trump administration, ready to defend the president’s record and promote the way he stepped in to implement policies that would benefit Americans.
The COVID-19 situation as handled by the White House, especially in the wake of President Trump’s diagnosis with the virus, has led some people to question how this administration can lead the country in fighting the virus when the administration itself won’t adhere to current CDC guidelines by wearing masks and avoiding large crowds.
Senator Harris took the opportunity to show Americans that she supported the science behind fighting COVID-19 and stated that she would “be the first in line” to be vaccinated if scientists were administering the vaccine. She made it clear that she does not believe President Trump would do the same.
Watching this debate was like watching two very distinct, if not predictable, caricatures of the republican and democratic parties. Senator Harris boosted civic duty, care for the American people, and public safety, while Vice President Pence boasted personal responsibility, economic growth, and the prayers and thoughts of the current administration. Candidates discussed the differences in opinion when it came to coronavirus response, debating the differences between personal responsibility and government mandates in halting the impacts of the virus on the American people.
Unlike the first presidential debate, where political polarization was made evident through the shouting and constant interruptions, this debate showcased the stark ideological differences between the democratic and republican parties.
A reporter from NPR commented, “The most remarkable thing about this debate is how normal it is.”
And for the most part, it was exactly that – normal. There were occasions when the candidates exceeded their time limits or redirected the conversation away from the moderator’s control, however, this is to be expected from any presidential debate. This debate may not have been a shouting match like we saw last week, but the body language from both of the candidates was sharp and snarky. Both candidates made their feelings perfectly evident as the opposing candidate made their points, the close-up camera catching every headshake and eyebrow raise. Vice President Pence more frequently exceeded his time limits, talking over the moderator’s attempts at moving along. Senator Harris took the same approach as Vice President Biden had in the previous debate, turning toward the camera to address the American people directly – the jury is still out on whether this is a comforting or cringe-worthy move in the eyes of the American people.
The debate closed with a question from a Salt Lake City eighth-grader, asking how citizens can have civil discourse when our leaders don’t seem to be exemplifying civility on television or in the media. Both candidates closed with sentimental answers about democracy and leadership. Vice President Pence saying, “Here in America, we can disagree… When the debate is over, we come together as Americans.”
As a whole, this debate left little to be ranted about. It was a fairly uneventful exercise in democracy, giving die-hard party liners the information they need to stick with their vote, and giving undecideds a bit more to think about. If all goes according to plan, undecided voters will have two more opportunities to hear from the campaigns before election night.
As long as the president remains in good health, the final two presidential debates are scheduled for October 15th and October 22nd. You can view the full Vice-Presidential debate courtesy of PBS. If you missed the first debate between Biden and Trump check out our coverage of it here.