Who is winning the VP debate?


Kamala Harris and Mike Pence debate togetherImage copyright
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This vice-presidential debate has given the Americans who watched a view of US politics present and future.

For the current election, both candidates did their best to defend their running mate and land shots on the top of the opposing ticket. While both have had moments of effectiveness and inadequacy, history suggests it will do little to change the dynamics of the race.

The participants in this debate are looking beyond this November, however. Pence – like most vice-presidents – has his eyes on a presidential bid of his own. To do that, he’ll have to win over Trump’s base while also casting a wider net to Republicans and right-leaning independents who may have become disaffected with the Trumpian politics. And so throughout the debate, he defended Trump – but also tried to carve out his own identity.

Harris, who at this point last year was running for president herself, tried to prove with that she’s a capable standard-bearer for the Democrats once Joe Biden exits the political stage. When given the chance, she spoke about her upbringing and background – taking the opportunity to introduce herself to a larger US audience.

Four years ago, Tim Kaine gave an unremarkable performance against Pence and his national standing hasn’t seemed to recover. A good showing tonight, her one big 2020 moment in the spotlight, would help ensure she avoids Kaine’s fate.

Cross words over coronavirus

Not surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic was the opening topic of the debate – and not surprisingly, Harris spent most of her time on the attack. Pence, on the other hand, focused mostly on the defence.

Such is the current political reality, given that it’s the Trump administration currently in charge.

Harris’s sharpest line was to cite statistics – 210,000 Americans dead – and charge the Trump administration with “ineptitude” and “incompetence”.

Pence had his response ready. He said the Biden-Harris plan was largely a copy of what Trump administration was already doing, boasted about speedy progress on a vaccine and treated criticism of his administration as an attack on first-responders and US healthcare workers.

Surprisingly, neither candidate spent much time on the fact that the White House itself has become the latest coronavirus hotspot. An obvious line of attack for Harris was left unexploited. Given that polls suggest handling of the virus is the Trump campaign’s greatest weakness, a draw on the topic is success for Pence.

Energy and the environment

If Pence was on his back foot on the coronavirus pandemic, when the topic turned to the environment, it was his turn to go on the attack. Biden has expanded his plan to address climate change since the Democratic primaries, and Harris was an original sponsor of the Green New Deal climate proposal.

While that has won them plaudits from environmentalists on the left, there are voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio who might view more government regulation as a threat to their economic livelihood – a reality Pence tried to exploit.

While acknowledging that “the climate is changing”, he warned that the Green New Deal would “crush American energy”. He accused Biden of wanting to “abolish” fossil fuels and ban fracking, which Harris pointed out was false.

Biden has had to walk a fine line on the environment, however. During the debate Harris said that climate change is an “existential threat” to the globe, but both she and Biden have avoided a full-throated defence of the kind of government response such a threat would require – probably because it risks alienating key voters in key states.

Race, police and protests

As Trump did a week earlier, Pence tried to quickly pivot from a discussion of discrimination and excessive force by law enforcement into a condemnation of the sometimes violent protests that have occurred in US cities. He said he trusted the justice system and that suggesting the nation is systemically racist is an insult to the men and women in law enforcement.

That set up Harris’s most powerful rejoinder.

“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice-president on what it means to enforce the laws of this country,” the former San Francisco prosecutor and California attorney general said curtly.

She noted Trump’s difficulties – as recently as the debate last week – in clearly and concisely condemning white supremacists, concluding “this is who we have as president”.

Of course, there was a fly on Pence’s head for almost the entirety of this moment, so that may be what everyone is talking about in the days ahead.

A question of tone

The lasting memories from last week’s presidential debate are probably ones of tone and demeanour – Trump’s constant interruptions and Biden’s occasional “will you shut up” flashes of temper.

Both candidates clearly had this in mind as they sat down behind their plexiglass-protected tables.

Pence typically calm and methodical demeanour served as a steady counterpoint to Trump’s earlier bombasity. On the occasions when he did interrupt, however, Harris was ready.

“Mr Vice-President, I’m speaking,” she said. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, then we can have a conversation.”

Given the dynamic of the debate – a white man interrupting the first black woman vice-presidential candidate – those were fraught moments for Pence, where the normally placid Midwesterner risked seeming rude.

What’s more, Pence had no qualms steamrolling moderator Susan Page – and given that women voters have turned sharply against Trump-Pence ticket, the extra speaking time he gained may have come at a political price.

This story will be updated.

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