The US vice-presidential debate was a welcome departure from the chaos that marked the presidential debate last week.
Historically, these debates have not had much influence on the results of the presidential election but 2020, for so many reasons, is different. We are living in the midst of a global pandemic that has hit the US especially hard. More than 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US, the highest death toll in the world, and 7.5 million have been infected with the virus, numbers that are mounting by the day.
Up on that stage was vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and the current vice president, Mike Pence. There is no denying this historical moment. Harris is the first African American and Asian American woman to be nominated to a major party ticket. And last night, she showed millions of Americans what it means to be presidential.
Both President Trump and Joe Biden are above the age of 70. Biden has promised to only run for one term, given he would be the oldest sitting president in US history if he wins in November (he would be 78 when sworn in). This made his VP pick of Harris a hugely important moment in his campaign.
Just last week, Trump (and some 28 others around him) tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalised. This put COVID-19, the president’s health, and questions about the line of succession front and centre, further elevating the importance of the vice-presidential debate.
Both Pence and Harris came in with clear talking points and with the objective of setting up a more substantive contrast between the Trump and Biden campaigns. In this respect, they both succeeded. Mike Pence may seem more reasonable and moderate than Trump, but he is not. He echoes every element of Trump’s policies, propaganda, and disinformation. He spreads the president’s lies and his vitriol, just with a smile and less shouting.
Kamala Harris went after the Trump administration on their many weak spots: COVID-19, health care, climate change, racial justice, and the economy, while also emphasising key elements of the Biden platform on these issues and many others.
Pence kept pivoting, leaving important questions about pressing issues, like health care and protecting Americans with pre-existing conditions, unanswered.
Harris, like Biden last week, laid out their platform. She pushed Americans to vote, called for greater transparency, and made the debate about the American people.
As Pence praised Trump’s record, Harris’ message was loud and clear: We are witnessing the greatest failure of presidential leadership, ever.
‘Mr Vice President, I’m speaking’
As Harris and Pence began to debate, one thing became especially clear, at least to most of the women watching. Harris was being constantly interrupted by Pence. She had to remind him on multiple occasions, “I’m speaking, okay?”
This resonates with women everywhere who live with the ceaseless onslaught of interruptions and mansplaining every single day. Moreover, Harris has to confront the double-standard applied to women in politics, and especially women of colour. You have to be strong, but not too aggressive. You have to be smart, but not condescending. You have to be beautiful, but not too beautiful. You have to be assertive, but not mean. These anachronistic standards reflect the sexism and racism that still plague our societies, and especially our politics.
Susan Page of USA Today did a better job moderating than Chris Wallace last week; the questions were well-formed, balanced, and addressed the key issues. The debate was indeed calmer, clearer, and more substantive overall – a clear contract with last week’s showdown. However, this should not hide the fact that both Mike Pence and Susan Page kept cutting Harris off. Page called Pence out once, but he continued to violate the rules of the debate. Page’s response was to simply repeat “Thank you.”
Harris herself had to remind Pence that he was constantly interrupting what was supposed to be her uninterrupted speaking time, a reality that women confront on a daily basis. Nonetheless, Harris returned to her key messages and refused to let the conversation descend into two candidates speaking over one another.
This points out another one of Harris’ many strengths: strong, concise messaging that resonates well with voters. “Mr Vice President, I’m speaking” was one of many messages that resonated especially well with women.
She brought up the key concerns of many voters, such as the Trump administration’s lack of transparency and disinformation campaigns regarding COVID-19, arguing: “You respect the American people when you tell them the truth.” On healthcare, she spoke to Americans with pre-existing health conditions, saying that the Trump administration was “coming for you”. She was speaking directly to the more than 20 million Americans who would lose their health insurance if Trump and the Republicans win the lawsuit seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Undecided voters and the state of the race
Another important element of the vice-presidential debates is that it offers a chance for audiences to get to know the candidates better. In this sense, the debate was also a win for Harris. She made sure to talk about her background, her qualifications, her work as a prosecutor, and her leadership in the Senate on the intelligence and judiciary committees. Her command of the issues, her vast experiences in public service, and most importantly, her compassion and empathy, showed audiences that Kamala Harris is presidential material.
A CNN instant poll of registered voters who watched the debate showed that nearly 60 percent believed Harris won, compared with 38 percent who voted in favour of Pence. Harris’ favourability numbers improved from 56 percent to 63 percent, while Pence’s held steady at 41 percent.