Wednesday’s vice presidential debate looked different than any other debate in political history. Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence sat twelve feet apart from one another with a piece of plexiglass separating each of them from the moderator Susan Page-- USA TODAY's Washington Bureau chief. A mask rule was strictly enforced for the small ticketed audience, after many of President Trump’s guests did not wear masks during the first presidential debate.
In addition to demonstrating improved safety precautions, this debate was more civil than the presidential debate last week. While there were still many interruptions from the candidates toward each other and the moderator, there was more substance and conversation about political issues. The main topics that the candidates debated were coronavirus response, foreign policy, health care, the economy, the supreme court, race, the peaceful transfer of power, and energy/climate policy.
A common theme throughout the debate was that both Pence and Harris indirectly answered certain questions, sometimes choosing to use their time to address other unrelated topics; few of the questions were truly answered. Multiple times, Pence announced that he would devote his time to answer a previous question when asked a new question. After the debate, Page expressed frustration that she did not get all of the answers she wanted after spending a lot of time writing the questions.
One standout question that did not get a true answer was about Roe v. Wade, specifically what the candidates would recommend that their home states do in the event that the decision is overturned. While Harris expressed her pro-choice views and Pence asserted his pro-life stance, neither candidate gave a true answer to what they would like to see from state governments in that event. I was excited to hear what the candidates had to say on this matter but was quickly disappointed when they did not use their time to do anything other than reestablish the views of their party, failing to provide their opinion on a frightening but possible reality.
In my opinion, one of the most jarring moments of the debate was when Pence denied systematic racism. He said that it is an insult to law enforcement officers to claim that the law enforcement system has implicit bias, even though history shows that it does. After Page asked the candidates about whether they believed justice was served for Breonna Taylor, Pence stated that he trusts the American justice system and defended the grand jury in the case. It was incredibly insensitive and discouraging to see the Vice President of our country be so ignorant to the long standing issue of systematic racism.
I was also struck by the fact that one of the big questions in the debate was about what the candidates would do in the event that President Trump does not accept the election results. This has never been a legitimate concern in any previous presidential election, but President Trump has expressed that this is a likely outcome if he loses the election. This is one of the most important elections in American history, and it is disappointing to realize that the leader of our country will not honor the integrity of our election system.
This was the only vice presidential debate for the 2020 election. Two more presidential debates are scheduled-- one on Thursday, October 15 and the other on Thursday, October 22. However, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the October 15 debate will take place virtually given the recent outbreak of coronavirus in the White House. President Trump is refusing to participate in a virtual debate, and his campaign released a statement reiterating this. As of right now, there is much uncertainty regarding the debates and how the final days of the 2020 campaign trail will play out.
News sources vary on who won the vice presidential debate, but no neutral source suggests a win by a large margin. Vice presidential debates typically do not have a big impact on the election unless something goes significantly wrong, which did not happen (although the fly on Pence’s head got a lot of buzz). No matter who won, it was inspiring to see a woman of color debating to become the Vice President for the first time in American history. It was a historic, meaningful event for that reason. Harris faced a double standard on the debate stage, but she was powerful and confident. “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” became Harris’ trademark line of the night-- a strong reminder for all of us that we need to stand up for ourselves.