Last Wednesday’s debate sure was different from the one a week before. Incumbent Vice President Mike Pence went head-to-head with Joe Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. Unlike the presidential debate a week ago, the vice-presidential debate featured coherent arguments from knowledgeable and skilled politicians.
Pence showed great skill in debating from an admittedly sub-optimal position, given the current state of the country. It’s a lot harder to argue for Trump’s competence when so much chaos and disparity are overcoming the country. Harris’s job, then, was to show America the weakness of the Trump administration and give citizens confidence that she and Joe Biden could do better. While her performance wasn’t a failure, it didn’t confront Pence to the degree that the situation required, instead letting him squirm his way out of any criticism.
The debate began with a discussion of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and Harris seemed to only have one argument. She repeatedly brought up the fact that Trump knew of the seriousness of the virus but refused to tell the American people out of fear of causing panic. Pence did what any good politician does: redirect the conversation to the positives of the Trump administration. Harris brought up Trump’s sitting on the information two more times without directly attacking the actual actions the Trump administration took to deal with the pandemic that Pence highlighted. Harris’s point was important, but using it as the only argument in tearing down Trump’s actions is a tactic doomed to fail. She needed to decimate the administration’s actions at every step, not focus on one point that seemed irrelevant in the face of Pence’s stream of confidence.
One topic Pence refused to elaborate on was the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade and the outright banning of abortion in certain states. Pence refused to give a direct answer, instead vaguely stating that he valued the “sanctity of human life.” He then pivoted to discussing Democrats’ supposed plans to use taxpayer money to fund abortions. Pence made an incredibly smart move here, and Harris didn’t seem willing to challenge his avoidance of the question. Pence knows that both outright abolition of abortion and taxpayer funded abortions are unpopular, so he refuses to acknowledge his stuanchly anti-abortion stance and focuses instead on the Biden-Harris stance. This allows him to frame himself as the more moderate of the two, when, in reality, he believes in radical restrictions on womens’ rights.
Harris also attempted to use President Trump’s infamous comments on protestors in Charlottesville, as well as his comments on immigrants from Mexico, to show a racist trend in his thoughts and statements. Harris’s point is not incorrect, but it is an incredibly easy argument to debunk. Pence can simply point out statements Trump has made to the contrary, and no progress will have been made. If what you say is all that matters, it’s pretty easy to fend off allegations of racism. Pence even doubled down, pointing out systemic racial inequality in San Francisco’s criminal justice system while Harris was the District Attorney. Pence made this argument completely cynically — he obviously doesn’t care about racial inequality — but it needs a deeper confrontation than what Harris could offer.
Pence’s debate skills should not fool anyone into thinking he is somehow more respectable than Trump. Pence’s prowess doesn’t change his fundamentally reactionary ideology, it simply makes it more palatable to people. He redirects and dodges to avoid stating directly the details of his goals, which are abhorrent to most Americans. Harris was certainly a better speaker than Biden, but she proved somewhat unable to take down Pence’s dodging and reframing. This doesn’t mean that Pence won the debate — polling suggests viewers believed Harris did slightly better — but it sets a dangerous precedent for the way the Republican Party is able to represent itself and its ideas.