The US Vice Presidential Debate: a Diplomatic, Dichotomous Exchange

This article is part of an ongoing cooperation with the Boston Political Review and can be found on both platforms.

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The US Vice Presidential Debate: a Diplomatic, Dichotomous Exchange
Image courtesy the Associated Press.

Roar writers Laura Saracino and Justine Noble on how the 2020 US Vice Presidential debate highlighted the ever-starker divide and dichotomy between the Democratic and Republican parties.

On October 7, 2020, the much-awaited Vice Presidential Debate between current Vice President (VP) Michael Pence and Senator Kamala Harris took place in Salt Lake City, Utah. Moderated by Susan Page of USA Today, the debate consisted of questions focussed on the burning issues of the electoral campaign, shifting from economic plans to ongoing pandemic policies, the role of Vice President, and issues of race and racism.

Following a first Presidential Debate described by CNN as a “chaotic disaster”, viewers were eager to see if the VP candidates would bring home better results than their presidential counterparts. While the debate itself was decidedly more substantive than its predecessor, it nevertheless further exposed the striking divide between the Democratic and Republican parties.

While this year’s VP debate resembled its many predecessors through its intense clashes between the Democratic and Republican parties, much about it was unique due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Precautions were taken to ensure the safety of its moderator, candidates, and viewers, with everyone in the audience wearing face masks and candidates placed twelve feet apart from each other. 

It was fitting, then, when Page introduced the first topic as the Coronavirus. Sen. Harris and VP Pence’s responses to Page’s questions immediately highlighted the harsh dichotomy between 2020’s presidential campaigns. Sen. Harris, when asked what a Biden administration would do differently to a Trump administration in curbing the spread of the Coronavirus, stated Trump’s response to the spread was “the greatest failure of any presidential administration” in America’s history due to its ill-preparedness.

She went on to talk of a national strategy for contact tracing, testing and making the administration of a vaccine free for all citizens. Pence, on the other hand, argued, “from the very first day President Donald Trump has put the health of America first”, citing his suspension of all travel from China as well as Operation Warp Speed, aimed at creating a widely accessible vaccine. 

The polarity and complexity of American politics were further illustrated through candidates’ discussion of US foreign policy. While VP Pence cited Pres. Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA as an example of saving American manufacturing jobs in the midwest, Sen. Harris cited the president’s trade war with China as doing exactly the opposite. In addition, Sen. Harris accused Pres. Trump of “[embracing] dictators around the world” and neglecting NATO.

Antagonism continued with the discussion of the US Supreme Court. Vice President Pence supported the nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett by Trump as a new court justice, while Sen. Harris argued it is unjust and undemocratic for a new justice to be appointed prior to the election, a decision which would affect critical political issues such as abortion and the Affordable Care Act.

The two Vice Presidential candidates also discussed the issue of the upcoming election itself. Page asked Sen. Harris what the Biden campaign would do if Trump were to follow through on his recurring refusal to conduct a peaceful transfer of power. Without directly answering the question, Harris assured her audience Biden is committed to preserving democracy and encouraged all Americans to do their part by voting. When VP Pence was asked the same, he also avoided giving a direct answer, stating he finds it unlikely Trump will lose the election. Both Harris and Biden deflected, yet in completely different directions and for what seemed utterly different reasons.

When asked about the economy and future economic plans, Sen. Harris openly stated her belief that the difference between Pres. Trump and Biden could not be more substantial. In her words, Biden “measures the health and the strength of the American economy based on the health and the strength of American workers and American families”. Simply put: the better the conditions, working environments, and opportunities for all workers, the better the overall situation.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, considers the richness of the American citizens symptomatic of a successful system, as exemplified by the Tax Cuts and Job Act the US Senate passed on December 20, 2017. The Democratic candidate assured the audience and the country that on day 1, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill, he will get rid of it”, investing in research and development to facilitate a dramatic increase in innovation.

VP Pence was asked a slightly different question but first responded to his opponent. Pence insisted the bill put forth by the Trump Administration led not only to cut taxes but also increased savings for the average American family. He was avid in his assurances that Pres. Trump had spared no expense to help his people and their economy through the disastrous consequences of the pandemic and warned the audience of Democrats only wanting to make things worse by raising taxes and costing hundreds of thousands of Americans their jobs by abolishing fossil fuels.

Considering the controversial policies the current administration has adopted in the realm of climate change, the subject’s feature in the debate was no surprise. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the scientific evidence of man-made climate change was the dual focuses of Page’s question to Pence, who answered by saying: “Our air and land are cleaner than ever recorded, our water is among the cleanest in the world.” This is a half-dodged answer, and not a proposed solution to the issue presented.

VP Pence went on to celebrate goals achieved by investing in innovations and natural gas, as well as the dismissal of the Green New Deal, responsible among other things for crushing American jobs in line with the Republican view that a free market economy facilitates rapid progress in environmental protection. Sen. Harris responded with support for the Green New Deal and renewable energy plans, her repeated mantra Joe believes in science” hinting at the perceived instability of the current administration.

Page then introduced the hot topic of racism by asking a simple but crucial question: “In the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?” Sen. Harris’ response was emotive, discussing the future that Breonna was pursuing and reminding the audience of the all-too-soon end to her life. She went on to mention George Floyd and the protests, past and present, held in America’s cities. After all, the events of Charlottesville ostensibly inspired Joe Biden to take the presidential ticket, persuaded by a need for reforms in the police force and the criminal justice system.

In opposition, VP Pence declared himself confident in the American justice system and, although sorry for the loss of American lives in the country’s recent riots, his firm opinion was that there are no excuses for rioting and looting. He refuted the existence of systemic racism in America, painting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as presumptuous in their belief that US law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities. 

After the debate between Trump and Biden, the VP debate was a breath of fresh air. Sen. Kamala Harris and VP Mike Pence were prepared and confident protagonists of a discussion that went smoothly throughout its 90 minutes, with just a few interruptions and warnings of elapsed speaking time by its moderator.

The sharp differences between the two candidates’ agendas were underlined by their answers. While Pence was the voice of the Republicans in emphasising the greatness of America and reassuring viewers of the status quo, Sen. Harris spoke as a future-oriented, progress-seeking candidate, in many ways the polar opposite of the former. In many ways, both candidates answered their questions in the same fashion. The end result, however, could not have been more different.

There is no doubt the debate provided a clear picture of what each VP candidate stands for, and what the candidates they stand behind seek to change in America. For better or for worse? You decide. 

Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.

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