Utah Vice: The US vice presidential debate was a battle of genders, wits and words

Utah Vice: The US vice presidential debate was a battle of genders, wits and words
US Vice Presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence squared up to one another for the first time on Wednesday night. Photo: EPA-EFE/CJ GUNTHER)

The vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris on Wednesday night was in stark contrast to the earlier debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. There were verbal blows landed, some punches missed, and a fly visibly landed on Mike Pence’s head. But this debate almost certainly changed little in the race, and Biden will continue to be in the lead, once the polls are in later this week. 

This is a truly strange moment in American politics.

In the midst of a national pandemic that has now killed over 211,000 and sickened 7.5 million; in the midst of a pandemic when the president himself had been admitted to hospital the week previously and given a whole slew of drugs unavailable to anybody else in the country; at a time when the economy remains in a near stall; and when the national fear over healthcare coverage and the growing realisation of an incoming climate disaster; incumbent vice president Mike Pence and California senator and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris came together to debate the country’s future at the University of Utah.

The tasks for the two candidates were strikingly clear. For Pence, it was not simply to defend the president after his own disastrous appearance in his debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, although that was clearly on his to-do list. Instead, as Rick Santorum, the designated conservative commentator on CNN said in the minutes before the debate began, that this was Pence’s initial, “I am running for president in 2024” moment. 

As Santorum added, if he chose to conduct a straight line defence of the president, “you could mail in the result of the election, right now.” 

For Kamala Harris, this moment was also an audition for her own presidential ambitions for next time around. But, in the meantime, she also needed to portray herself successfully as the avatar of the emerging, new American demographic reality, not just a woman, obviously, but also as a person of colour whose wide-ranging personal heritage and circumstances spoke of a universe that is far beyond the old-style normative whiteness of middle America.

As the debate began, the physically distanced, mask-wearing audience at the University of Utah was watching two candidates seated at a distance from one another behind plexiglass shields, moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page. It was Page, who right at the outset, effectively said to the pugilists, “Now shake hands, come out fighting, and follow the damned rules – or else.”

The first question was what a Biden administration would do differently over Covid, and Harris called out the Trump administration for its lack of plans – and its duplicity to the nation. 

The vice president was then asked why the US death toll was the highest in the world. He pointed to the courage of the administration in blocking travel from China and delivering millions of tests, equipment and therapeutics, as well as a soon-to-be-delivered vaccine. Harris then charged that if the Trump administration had actually had a plan, it clearly hasn’t worked. Meanwhile, Pence then insisted his administration had boundless faith in the nation. Well, okay, but what does that mean? 

In nearly lachrymose terms, Pence underscored the Trump administration’s unbounded faith in the people to make choices in their own interest; boo on that radical Democratic “green new deal”, socialised health care, and yada yada yada. In response to this litany, Harris painted a vivid picture of people in food lines because of the administration’s incompetence. 

On a vaccine, if a new vaccine comes available, Harris said that of course she would take it, but only if it came recommended by the nation’s public health authorities, and certainly not on the word of the incumbent president. To this, Pence accused the senator of undermining public confidence in the Operation Warp Speed vaccine programme.

The moderator then raised the question of presidential disability, and hot potato time! Pence pivoted to the swine flu epidemic of a decade ago and the presumed failure of the Obama administration in dealing with it. (Note: 12,000 perished in that epidemic as opposed to the Covid clicker that just keeps on ticking.) 

In response to Susan Pace’s question, Harris reached back to the familial admonition of her mother’s belief in public service and the dignity of all people, and the experience and lessons of her career as California’s attorney general and as a prosecutor in San Francisco. A whole lot of slip-sliding away from Susan Pace’s question.

Regarding the public release of detailed health data on the presidential candidates, Pence insisted the president’s treatment at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center had been wonderful and the treatments had been publicly explained. Harris insisted, meanwhile, that her running mate and head of the ticket has been transparent on his health — and on his taxes. Boom. To whom does that man now in the White House owe all that money ($421,000,000), she asked? To this, Pence averred that the president has released lots of documents and created lots of jobs in his business career. Note here that Pence did not deny the truth of that massive debt overhang.

And then it was on to job creation and their competing ideas about using the nation’s tax regimen to expand the economy. Harris argued that the health of the economy is measured by examining and understanding the circumstances of the American worker and his/her family, not on the benefits heaped on rich people. Further, a Biden presidency would repeal those Trump tax cuts for the rich and use the resulting tax revenue to invest in infrastructure, educational upgrades and research for innovation. “Investing in people!” is the mantra here.

For the stalled recovery, Pence insisted they had come into office in the midst of a slow growth economy (following that 2008-9 financial collapse) and that here was a clear distinction with his opponents. The Biden administration would raise taxes from day one in comparison to the warm, compassionate nurturing of the growth of the economy his administration has been responsible for. Moreover, Biden would go back to his default position of a surrender to China. 

Mike Pence had made his move to try to overwhelm Harris and she was not having it. She responded that the Trump administration had simply ridden the coattails of the Obama-Biden economic recovery. Oh, and lest audiences forget, the Trump administration is trying to obliterate Obamacare. In response, Pence insisted there was a Trump administration health plan a-comin’. Some day. But they have been saying that for four years.

Ah, now it is on to climate change. Do you believe in the science of… Mike Pence? (Harris has the wry look on her face of someone watching a master dissembler, as shown on the split screen.) Pence asserted the Trump administration has given the nation the cleanest, purest air and water in the world, ever. What, exactly, is the Biden-Harris approach to that green new deal plan, besides killing fracking? Citing Moody’s Analytics, Harris says the jobs that would be created in a Biden administration focus on such efforts as renewable energy and carbon neutrality. Asked if he believes in the science of climate change, Pence pivots to defending earlier tax cuts and attacking Harris on that green new deal and resubmitting the country to the lash of the Paris climate accord. You can almost hear: “America first, America first!”

Harris is now speaking on trade, and she argues the Trump administration has actually cost manufacturing jobs and farmer incomes since coming into power. People know what they know about their current circumstances. She points to many people’s fears about even being able to pay rent. Pence responds that Joe Biden has been a “cheerleader for communist China”. Harris responds that Biden helped save the auto industry and “you voted against it [that bailout help in 2009]”.

Describe the US relationship with China, Mr Pence, the moderator asks. Pence pivots to that old, nasty, horrible Nafta and the wonderful, new, tri-national agreement his administration negotiated with Canada and Mexico. Oh, and then it was back to China. 

China and the WHO didn’t play fair with America and it is they who are really responsible for the virus, despite Biden’s cheerleading for China. Pence bulls on past time limits, it seems. To Harris, is the US relationship with China one of adversaries or what? She responds by saying that Trump has a weird obsession with getting rid of any Obama  legacies, including the pandemic disease monitoring teams that were previously in place. 

That compulsion to confront China has actually cost the economy 300,000 manufacturing jobs, argues Harris. And she cites Pew Research Center data that points to the collapse of US leadership and its reputation globally. 

“You gotta know who your friends are, and who your enemies are.” She points to Russia and the Trump administration’s insistence on taking the word of Vladimir Putin over that of the country’s own intelligence community regarding 2016 electoral interference. 

“Trump doesn’t know what it means to be honest,” she says. Pence then points to the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem, growing NATO member contributions to the alliance and the defeat of ISIS as key deliverables of a Trump foreign policy. And there was, inevitably, the death of an American hostage at the hands of ISIS. Blood on the hands of the previous administration. 

We are now into something of a spitting contest over who has more respect for the military. What about those Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan, asks Kamala Harris. Mike Pence retorts that the Trump-Pence administration reveres the troops more – so there. Now the two had an opportunity to squabble over the time available to rebut the rebuttals.

It is on to the pending Supreme Court nomination and whether Pence wants to end abortion in his home state. But before he goes to the question at hand, and then elides away from it, he rises to a rousing defence of killing Qasim Suleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard general. Oh, right, back to the court question. Oops. Time’s up. 

Now it is over to Harris,  who is asked that if Roe v Wade (the Supreme Court decision that enshrined a woman’s control over her own body) is overturned in a future court decision, what should your state do? The answer is that since the country is now just 27 days before the election and millions have already voted, the Biden candidacy believes we should let the election be held and then let that victor nominate a new justice.

The sanctity of preserving a woman’s right to choose and the Affordable Care Act may be up for the court to rule on in this current session, and so a decision against the health care act could be the death knell for coverage over pre-existing conditions. To that point, the moderator asks Pence that if President Trump says he supports mandated coverage of pre-existing conditions, why is your administration supporting court challenges aiming to end this? Pence insists that he is pro-life. End of story. 

And we are off to the canard of a Biden administration’s taxpayer support for abortions right to the moment of birth. (Where has this come from?) The moderator wants to know if a Biden administration would want to pack the Supreme Court (by legislating additional justices to reverse the slide towards a conservative court), Pence insists. Harris insists the real question is making nominations in the midst of an election. Pence insists the secret agenda is a Biden “pack the court” plan. And Harris turns to the appointments by the Trump administration’s packing the lower courts with an entirely conservative, white cadre of judges.

Moving to the death of Breonna Taylor, was justice done? Harris says, no, justice was not done when she was killed. And similarly so with George Floyd. And so, people around the nation, people of all backgrounds, have marched for equal justice under law. We can’t condone violence, but support the fight to achieve justice. Thus there is a plan to abolish certain holds of detainees, a register of law-violating police, etc. 

Pence responds that his heart breaks for any loss of innocent life, but supports grand juries. There is no excuse for Floyd’s death and none for rioting either. Harris’ response is to tick off the litany of the Trumpian repertoire of racial, ethnic and religious slurs that has contributed to the acrimonious climate. Pence says Kamala is selectively editing the president’s words, and besides, yes, he loves his Jewish grandchildren, for goodness sake. (Oh, c’mon, the writer’s inner gorge rises.)

Susan Page asks what happens if Donald Trump refuses to accept the results of the election? Harris responds that there is now a broad coalition of former Republican officials, retired generals and admirals and other national security officials, and that all Americans should vote to make the decision about the course of the nation for the future. 

Pence responds that first of all, he and Trump will win on their record and because of a movement of the people, but accepting the election means to acknowledge that Democrats have tried to repeal the 2016 results. Besides, Hillary Clinton has advised Biden he should offer no concession and there is the possibility of voter fraud. So there! The ghost of Hillary Clinton to the rescue for Mike Pence.

Susan Page’s final question was to quote a student who asked that since all she sees is constant bickering and fighting between the parties, how can citizens get along? Pence argues that the images on the news are not the same as who the country really is. “We always come together.” 

Harris answers that she believes the nation has a bright future with student citizens who have concerns about such things. Joe Biden decided to run because he has a lifelong career of working across the partisan divide and aims to lift the nation up. 

And then it is over. There was lots of arguing, but nobody got hurt; there was no screaming and spitting, no hair pulling – although there was a fair bit of dodging of awkward questions. 

In the end, Mike Pence’s task of defending the current administration’s record on Covid proved virtually impossible, but he did what he could. Harris declined to respond directly to the idea of court packing, but Pence slipped away from preserving medical pre-existing conditions, even as his administration is seeking to destroy that protection and the Affordable Care Act generally in court cases. He also danced away from how he would respond to the Trumpian assertions about the possibility of a rigged election. 

But both individuals did manage to stake their claim as “ready for prime time” to step up to the Oval Office of the president, if need be. 

This debate was much more civil than the unhinged affair that we witnessed  previously. Oh, and by the way, Susan Page was a much tougher moderator than Chris Wallace had been. Give her a bonus point for her tenaciousness even if she sometimes avoided following up on the sticking points. 

Still more to go in this unique electoral campaign that it seems will never end. DM



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