A Debate Full of Divides, Some Visible, Some Transparent
The stars of Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate were notable for their firmness, their steadiness and, for a political discussion, their unusual level of transparency.
I am referring, of course, to the plexiglass dividers.
The rounded, clear barriers on the debate stage between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris were supposedly a guard against aerosol coronavirus transmission. Experts dismissed them as little more effective than a “Please No Virus Beyond This Point” sign.
But as symbols, they were plenty effective. Beginning to end, they stood as monuments to a pandemic that has changed everything, to the administration’s struggle to control it and to the fact that, since President Trump’s diagnosis with Covid-19 on Friday, the White House itself has become a biological disaster area.
The memento mori aspect of the recent news underscored that a vice-presidential debate, an afterthought in many campaigns, is serious business this year. The president, 74, remains a Covid patient. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is 77 years old himself. The vice president is a heartbeat away from the presidency, and our hearts have all been beating faster lately.
If the stakes were higher than usual in this debate, however, the temperature was lower, at least compared with the steam-blast sauna of the first Trump-Biden debate. The battle was fought with smiles and passive aggression, not tantrums and insults.
There was an alternative-reality aspect to the debate. Mr. Pence was the sort of candidate you might imagine if the Republicans had nominated a more establishment conservative in 2016. Ms. Harris is who you might expect if the Democrats had picked a nominee more representative of their young, multiracial and female constituencies.
Squint your eyes, ignore the plexiglass and it was almost as if we were living in something like normal times. The debate was contentious, evasive and often frustrating, but within the range of recognizable politics rather than an MMA fight.
Watch: Highlights From the 2020 Vice-Presidential Debate
Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris sparred on topics including the response to the coronavirus and the Supreme Court vacancy.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country. And here are the facts: 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months. Over seven million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed. And they knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you.” “Our nation has gone through a very challenging time this year. But I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first. And quite frankly, when I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating new P.P.E., developing a vaccine, umm, it looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.” “Whatever the vice president is claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn’t worked. And you know, the vice president is the head of the task force and knew on Jan. 28 how serious this was. And then, thanks to Bob Woodward, we learned that they knew about it, and then when that was exposed, the vice president said when asked, well, why didn’t you all tell anybody, he said, because the president wanted people to remain calm.” “Well, let’s give the —” “So I — no, but Susan, I, this is important.” “Susan, I, I have to weigh in here —” “And I want to add, but if — Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.” “I have to weigh in.” “I’m speaking. So I want to ask the American people: How calm were you when you were panicked about where you’re going to get your next roll of toilet paper? How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know when they could go back? How calm were you —” “Thank you. Thank you, Senator Harris —” “— when your children couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid they could kill them?” “There’s not a day gone by that I haven’t thought of every American family that’s lost a loved one. And I want all of you to know that you’ll always be in our hearts and in our prayers. But when you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.” “I’m referring to you and the president.” “The reality, if I may, if I may finish, Senator — the reality is, Dr. Fauci said, everything that he told the president in the Oval Office, the president told the American people. Now, President Trump, I will tell you, has boundless confidence in the American people, and he always spoke with confidence that we’d get through this together. The difference here is, President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.” “Let’s talk about respecting the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth. You respect the American people when you have the courage —” “Which we’ve always done.” “— to be a leader, speaking of those things that you may not want people to hear, but they need to hear so they can protect themselves.” “If the Trump administration approves a vaccine before or after the election, should Americans take it, and would you take it?” “If Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us I should, that we should take it, I’m not taking it.” “The reality is that we’re going to have a vaccine, Senator, in record time, in unheard-of time, in less than a year. We have five companies in Phase 3 clinical trials, and we’re right now producing tens of millions of doses. So the fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine —” “It’s not what —” “— if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think is, is unconscionable. Stop playing politics with people’s lives. The reality is that we will have a vaccine, we believe, before the end of this year.” “Over four million people have voted. People are in the process of voting right now. And so Joe has been very clear, as the American people are: Let the American people fill that seat in the White House, and then we’ll fill that seat on the United States Supreme Court. And to your point, Susan, the issues before us couldn’t be more serious: There’s the issue of choice, and I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body. It should be her decision and not that of Donald Trump and the vice president, Michael Pence.” “I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it.” “Senator Harris.” “The people, Susan, are voting right now. They’d like to know if you and Joe Biden are going to pack the Supreme Court if you don’t get your way in this nomination.” “Let’s talk about packing, come on —” “Once again you gave a non-answer. Joe Biden gave a non-answer —” “I’m trying to answer you now.” “The American people deserve a straight answer. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, the straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election.” “We will not let anyone subvert our democracy with what Donald Trump has been doing, as he did on the debate stage last week, when again in front of 70 million people he openly attempted to suppress the vote. Joe Biden on that stage said, hey, just please vote. So I’ll repeat what Joe said: Please vote.” “And we have a free and fair election. We know we’re going to have confidence in it. And I believe in all my heart that the president, Donald Trump, is going to be re-elected for four more years.”
Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor who turned her courtroom technique on her now-running-mate during the primary, went on the offensive, but with a smile. Taking the first question on the pandemic from the moderator, USA Today’s Susan Page, she laid the White House for “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in our history.”
Mr. Pence, a smooth-toned former radio host, spent his 2016 debate defending Mr. Trump as well, but with grinning, genial shakes of the head. Four years later, the head of the coronavirus task force was still shaking his head, but gravely and grimly. Ms. Harris seemed eager to be at the debate; he did not.
As the debate moved on to other topics, he went on the counterattack, trying to cast Mr. Biden as simultaneously an establishment dinosaur and a radical. And showed his boss’s determination to dominate the microphone, albeit at lower volume. He repeatedly ran over his time, speaking over Ms. Page and Ms. Harris.
Ms. Harris, who can be a fierce inquisitor in the Senate and onstage, countered each interruption with a smile and a crisp, “I’m speaking” — conscious, maybe, of the double bind for female candidates, who can be labeled unlikable for asserting themselves, and for candidates of color, who can get tagged as angry for the same.
Her measured response may have made the audience more conscious of Mr. Pence’s microphone manspreading, something that may have hurt Mr. Trump in the response to the last debate. But it also probably cost her minutes of time.
And there was not much policing from Ms. Page. She wasn’t steamrollered as loudly and showily as Chris Wallace in the first debate, but she faced her own quiet riot and had little control of it.
She started with a strong set of questions (she, like Mr. Wallace, asked about climate change, largely ignored in past presidential debates). But both candidates ignored them when it suited them, sticking to seemingly canned attacks or relitigating the previous question.
In a debate season dominated by the pandemic — all the more so in the past week — it was surprising that Ms. Page spent relatively little time on it up front. (Ms. Harris, not surprisingly, turned the focus back to it whenever possible, whether the topic was the economy or foreign relations.)
But in 2020, there’s always something to remind you of the pandemic, overtly or subtly. At one point, a big black fly disconcertingly lit on Mr. Pence’s white shock of hair, a pestilential symbol that proved the writers of our reality can be pretty heavy-handed with the metaphors.
Even the closing moment when the candidates’ spouses joined them onstage highlighted how politicized simple medical science has become. Ms. Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, wore a mask. Karen Pence, the wife of the head of the White House coronavirus task force, did not, despite a rule requiring audience members to do so.
It was more evidence that it’s a bad idea for the debate commission, with its toothless gestures at pandemic safety, to hold in-person debates right now. And it was a glaring reminder of that the not all the divides in this blighted country today are made of plexiglass.
The debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris featured sharp exchanges over the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. Here are six takeaways.
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