“If you have a pre-existing condition…they’re coming for you.” — Senator Harris
A certain level of bias precedes my conclusion in the title, but it is my view that Senator Harris executed a debate performance that will maintain, or even strengthen, the current standing of the Democratic ticket. Americans were finally able to hear long-form answers to substantive policy questions from both candidates. This was something stolen from the public in the first presidential debate — an affront to this nation I worry will only repeat itself.
Nevertheless, I reach this conclusion mostly in virtue of Pence’s failure to meet the moment. It was not only Harris’s unique and intelligent ability to express her policy disagreements, but it was Pence’s inability to captivate his audience and recover from what has been an extraordinary embarrassment for the Trump Administration in these past few weeks.
From the White House super-spreader event which infected countless GOP officials to the investigative journalism that discovered President Trump’s tax avoidance and large outstanding debts, Pence had the heavy duty of establishing the only serious argument for why Americans should continue on our current trajectory. It was Pence’s job to show the American people a kind of leadership that is steady in times of crisis, compassionate in times of turmoil, and thoughtful in times of harsh reactions. We didn’t receive that.
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Don’t get me wrong. The Vice Presidential Debate showcased two politicians with utterly opposite worldviews and policy stances who were able to express themselves with decorum, civility, and respect. For what interruptions there were, they were short and often shut down and ran off course by the USA Today moderator Susan Page. Sure, there are already articles written about how she lost her patience with the candidates and how she was unable to steer the debate, but the event allowed both candidates to at least finish their thoughts.
As a matter of public policy, the answers we heard from the Kamala Harris and Mike Pence represented fundamentally different Americas.
For Senator Harris, it was a message about what would change instead of what would stay the same. By her words, there would be a more robust plan of action to combat the coronavirus, a repeal of the 2017 tax cuts which serve to exacerbate income inequality, and investments into clean energy, infrastructure, and healthcare. Her mission was to hold down the fort in communicating these policies and not let Pence make-up any ground. On that note, she succeeded.
In contrast, Pence’s vision of the United States upholds the status quo — our educational system, the exacerbation of climate change, and our tax code all the same. As an added bonus, Pence detailed his stance that our institutions hold no implicit bias or prejudice against others while providing no response to the peaceful transfer of power if his ticket loses the election. It was a message that proudly claims business as usual.
As a matter of fact-checking, both the candidates made some misleading and/or false claims, and the NYT real-time fact-checking team lists the most important claims made here. There was also a moderate amount of question dodging — such as Harris on packing the Supreme Court and Pence on a peaceful transferal of power. The New York Times rated the two candidate’s answers in the following ways:
- Vice President Pence made 10 misleading claims while Senator Harris made 2 misleading claims.
- Vice President Pence made 5 false or mostly false claims while Senator Harris made 1 false or mostly false claim.
- Vice President Pence made 2 exaggerated claims while Senator Harris made 0 exaggerated claims.
- Vice President Pence made 6 true or mostly true claims while Senator Harris made 7 true or mostly true claims.
Of course, debates are more often about appearances rather than substance, so the fact-checking will likely only satisfy the Democratic base while it simultaneously instills more distrust toward the media for the right.
The appearance was mostly forgettable in that both candidates presented well, spoke concisely, and appeared more-or-less like strong candidates for the office. Yet, while civility certainly was present, Pence was unable to play the kind of offense he needed to lift up the Trump-Pence campaign. Although incumbents are usually responsible for defending their record on the debate stage, you need to play offense when your opponent is beating you by 9.5 points nationwide. Sure, the Vice President was able to present himself as the more level-headed portion of his ticket, but that won’t be enough.
In many ways, I thought of Mike Pence as the final arrow in Trump’s quiver to make-up for a disastrous debate performance, news of tax avoidance, and a preventable coronavirus outbreak at the White House. Now, it looks like Trump is all empty.
Since vice presidential debates do not historically change the race too much, even a mediocre and less-memorable debate performance by Harris would have been fine for her ticket. However, Harris took the time to make clear attacks against the Trump Administration with statements like, “If you have a preexisting condition…they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a preexisting condition — they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage — they’re coming for you.”
In regard to the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump Administration’s documented late response, Harris told the American people that, “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you.”
These moments paired with the occasional “Mr. Vice President, I’m still speaking” made for a debate that is unable to close the widening gap in polling we have seen this week. In many ways, I thought of Mike Pence as the final arrow in Trump’s quiver to make-up for a disastrous debate performance, news of tax avoidance, and a preventable coronavirus outbreak at the White House. Now, it looks like Trump is all empty.
Close to zero major new cycles in the past few months have been able to change public opinion much, and this debate will not be an outlier. As many voters have already cast their ballot or are in the process of filling out their mail-in ballots, the time to convince the small pool of undecided voters is mostly gone.
The desperate nature of the Trump campaign is worrisome at best. The President running out of time and strategies to gain more support may push him to manifest something dangerous in the coming weeks. It is with the utmost certainty that the Trump campaign wants to hush the media buzz around the President and create an October Surprise that captivates the nation. Due to the action and inaction of this White House in the past month, it will be close to impossible for the negative emphasis to be transferred to Biden. Alas, they will try anyway.
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