A lesson in civility?: The US Vice Presidential debate

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Josh Byrne reflects on Wednesday night’s VP debate

The vice-presidential debate is often regarded as the undercard to the big fight. Followers of the 2016 presidential campaign would struggle to recall the substantive discussion of the corresponding fixture between Mike Pence and Hillary Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine (if they remember Kaine at all). With Biden leading Trump by double digits nationwide, the pressure was on Pence to provide a rallying cry for the Republican party.

The debate that occurred was largely civil, certainly when compared to the mudslinging contest that unfolded last week. One sticking point was the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. On the first question of the night, Harris attempted to land a blow as she labelled the current administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as the “greatest failure of any administration in history”. Pence pointedly disagreed emphasising that “from the very first day President Donald Trump has put the health of America first”.

Senator Harris was confident and articulate in delivering her points while Vice-President Pence offered a softer alternative to the bombastic Trump. The approach of both debaters will have satisfied their target audiences. Reminiscent of the sarcastic smile often deployed by Hillary Clinton in 2016, Harris’ facial expressions ranged from outrage to incredulity throughout the evening. Amongst the Democratic base, she will be lauded for defiantly taking on the oppressive Trump regime. Her reprimanding of Pence for his interruptions will also help to propel this narrative. Similarly, Pence’s performance will have appeased evangelical voters and traditional conservatives who are uncomfortable with Trump’s brazen lewdness. 

Susan Page conducted the debate by the book and was equally willing to cut off both candidates once their time had elapsed. It could be that the furore which surrounded Chris Wallace’s performance at the presidential debate caused Page to adopt an excessively cautious approach. There were instances where Pence and Harris succeeded in pettifogging the issues and ultimately failed to answer fundamental questions that are of great consequence to the electorate. Pence, for example, offered no substantive proposals as to how the Trump administration would protect people with pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act is struck down. This is particularly important considering the matter is scheduled to come before the Supreme Court. Harris, meanwhile, refused to answer a question about whether a Biden administration would consider packing the Supreme Court. 

The rest of the debate consisted predominantly of the standard partisan talking points on issues such as the economy, race relations, and climate change. On rare occasions, the discussion did descend into bouts of bickering and sniping, particularly regarding racial justice and law enforcement. Senator Harris alluded to the allegations that President Trump had characterised the Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists as “fine people”, with Pence dismissing this as absurd. Pence remarked that Biden “believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities”, emphasising how this was a “great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement”

Additionally, Harris succeeded in making a case regarding Trump’s failure to criticise Russia for the bounty placed on American soldiers. For many voters, Trump’s perceived deference to Putin is a cause for serious concern. This was one of Harris’ most impressive moments of the night. 

Harris’ record as a prosecutor was always going to be low hanging fruit for Pence. When Harris outlined her position as an advocate for the decriminalisation of marijuana, Pence was quick to draw attention to an apparent hypocrisy given her robust prosecution of individuals charged with possession offences. It is unlikely that this revelation will have the desired dramatic effect considering it is a topic that was already brought up in the Democratic presidential nominee debates. Pence scored points by highlighting the fact that Biden had referred to Trump’s initial imposition of a travel ban on China as “xenophobic” and “hysterical”. The pandemic is the most urgent issue of the election and these comments lend credence to an argument that a Biden administration would not have dealt with these unprecedented circumstances any more effectively.

During the debate, some punches were landed. Some important questions remain unanswered. Neither side managed to secure the coveted knockout blow.

As a viewer, this event was far more enjoyable than the presidential equivalent. It is likely that people will emerge scratching their heads as to why neither of these candidates are topping their respective tickets. During the debate, some punches were landed. Some important questions remain unanswered. Neither side managed to secure the coveted knockout blow. This will suit Biden and Harris just fine as they strive to consolidate their lead with November 3rd looming. Trump will be desperately seeking the October surprise that will blow this election wide open. If there’s one thing that you can never underestimate about the current US President, it is his unrivalled talent for disruption. Watch this space closely over the next few weeks.