‘Mr Vice President, I’m speaking…’ – US VP debate a show of controlled condescension on both sides

‘Mr Vice President, I’m speaking…’ – US VP debate a show of controlled condescension on both sides
Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris (R) and US Vice President Mike Pence (L) during the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, 07 October 2020. EPA-EFE/Justin Sullivan / POOL

Differences on issues of race, the coronavirus and the economy – with a pesky fly thrown in for good measure – stood out in what was mostly a relatively sedate debate between US Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City, Utah, last night.  


A few sparks flared during Wednesday night’s US vice presidential debate when incumbent VP Mike Pence repeatedly spoke over the moderator, Susan Page, and went over the two minutes allocated to respond to questions. Pence also used up his response time on more than one occasion to refer back to a previous question in order to make a point.

The debate got underway with the hot topic of the coronavirus, which saw Pence explaining and defending the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, after Harris reminded Americans that the president did nothing in January despite knowing of the virus and how dangerous it was:

“And here’s the thing, on January 28th, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic… they knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you… the president said it was a hoax.”

Asked why the US death toll is almost 50% higher than other wealthy countries, Pence replied that “President Donald Trump did what no other president had ever done… and I believe it saved hundreds and thousands of American lives.”

When Harris responded to the question if she would take a vaccine if it became available, she said that if medical experts and doctors said it was reliable, then yes, but if Trump said to take it, then no. Pence responded that Harris was undermining “public confidence in a vaccine” and “playing politics with people’s lives… we will have a vaccine before the end of this year”.

Pence and Harris both showed their solid debating pedigree by their calm demeanour and studied responses. Mike Pence is generally seen as the calm to Trump’s chaos and as being a huge asset to the president in this regard; something that showed as he – at some points almost more mannequin than human – levelly pushed all the tax and coronavirus points that Trump asserts, but in a much more lucid manner.

Harris made a point of reminding people that she was the daughter of immigrants when she said “The day I got the call from Joe Biden – it was actually a zoom call – asking me to serve with him on this ticket… I thought about my mother who came to the United States at the age of 19…”

She did not respond directly to a question on whether she and Biden had discussed any plans in the event of “presidential disability”, given Biden’s age (77). The follow up question to both her and Pence was, considering the ages of both Biden and Trump (74), should there be transparency with the American public around their health?

Pence said that following the president being hospitalised at the weekend with Covid-19, doctors had been transparent about his health – despite media reports at the time clamouring for more information and showing inconsistencies between what some of the president’s medical team had said and treatment protocols. Pence also said he was grateful the president was doing well and thanked American citizens – and Harris – for their good wishes, but did not actually say if he thought the president should be transparent about his health.

The debate also showed up stark differences in campaign attitudes to race and racial justice. On the question of whether they believed justice had been done for Breonna Taylor – the 26-year-old African American woman shot and killed in her home by police – Harris very clearly said she didn’t, while Pence sidestepped a direct response.

It would be fair to say that Pence effectively mansplained his way around NOT answering the hard questions, including the contentious question of what would happen if Trump lost the elections. Would that be accepted as game over? Possibly not, as Pence responded with, “First and foremost, I think we are going to win this election.” He then went into a mild rant at Harris, saying that “your party has spent the last three years trying to overturn the result of the last election”. Lots of words; very few answers.

A fly lands on US Vice President Mike Pence’s head during the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, 07 October 2020. EPA-EFE/Justin Sullivan / POOL

Harris and Pence acquitted themselves civilly of their starring roles in the only VP debate of the US election campaign, but a surprise cameo towards the end almost stole the show – a big black fly appeared out of nowhere and settled for around two minutes on Pence’s head. Apparently this was a minute more than Joe Biden needed to turn the fly into a fundraising opportunity – see tweet: 


The fly stood out starkly against Pence’s perfectly cropped silver hair, as if the universe was telling the vice president off for his lack of response to the question of whether the climate crisis is an existential threat. DM

An Wentzel is Night Editor, specialist reporter for Daily Maverick, she went to the USA to visit family as the pandemic struck and is currently marooned in the land of the ‘free’.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    What I saw in the ‘debate’ was a closet white supremacist (unlike his open and blatant leader to whose whims he grovels without shame) display not just his contempt for women in general (including the ‘moderator’ – who dismally failed, especially against the boorish interrupting tactics and BS of Pence!) and support for a fascist leader. I was surprised Harris did not more forcefully call him out on the interruptions – probably for the fear of being called an ‘angry women’ ! Civility on a supremacist is wasted. The dripping racism with the constant referencing of only Obama, and no other president..was plain for all (who were interested) to see.

  • Coen Gous says:

    By and large, it was a non event. Everything said was already known beforehand, and answers could have been predicted. To me, the difference was in the character, personality and aura. Pence is a stone-faced, robot, who appears not to have an opinion of his own, rather echoing everything Trump has already said. Harris is restrained, with a subtle warmth, but make no mistake, certainly no pushover. If the battle is on, she will certainly stand her ground, rather than being someone else’s shadow. If one of them have to step in and become president due to some misfortune of the president, I will opt for Harris, whom is definitely more “human” with a slight and “wicket” sense of humour. Perhaps exactly what America needs in these time of fear (Pandemic, racial tensions, and economic uncertainty)

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