international analysis and commentary

Assessing a unique vice-presidential debate


The 2020 presidential campaign continues to disrupt any precedent. Only days after mocking his adversary Joe Biden for wearing masks and being cautious in the face of COVID-19, Donald Trump tested positive and was hospitalized for a few days. Now back in the White House, and on social media, the President maintains his divisive attitude, trying to distract from his mistakes and unfavorable polls by peddling conspiracy theories and undermining the population’s trust in the democratic system.

This context and Trump’s inability to conduct a political debate with his opponent made the vice-presidential debate on October 8th the place to learn about the different policy proposals. The concerns about the presidential candidates’ age and health, the vice-presidents (who would be next in the line of succession) were under higher levels of scrutiny. Biden has often highlighted that he chose Kamala Harris precisely for her leadership and readiness to take a prominent role in the administration. And after Trump’s positive test result, Mike Pence – who has rarely claimed the spotlight – was also evaluated as a possible leader, although Trump now seems to be on the road to recovery.

A moment of the Harris-Pence debate


The confrontation between the vice presidents did not bear much resemblance with the one between presidents: The debate was heated, but it was much more civilized and the two hardly raised their voices, although Pence interrupted Harris, and USA Today’s Susan Page, the debate moderator. The conversation was focused on programs and gave the audience an opportunity to hear, between the rhetoric, about topics ranging from the coronavirus response, to fracking, tax plans and reproductive rights.

Consistent with the presidential debate, fact checkers found that Pence made many more false claims than his opponent, but Harris had more opportunities than Biden to speak uninterrupted, and address the audience clearly. She could correct her opponent when his claims were demonstrably false or unsubstantiated. For instance, Pence falsely said that a Democratic ticket would result in more taxes for every American. He also said that Biden would ban fracking, which is not in his plans.

As was to be expected, COVID-19 and healthcare were the central issues of the evening. Harris pulled no punches as she attacked the administration for what she called “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” Pence tried to push back, but after the President himself fell ill it was harder than ever to claim success in handling the pandemic. Instead, Pence resorted to accusing Biden of plagiarizing Trump’s COVID-19 response – all but giving up on the criticism that Biden’s plan would be a failure.

While the subjects of the debate mattered, so did the candidates. Both Harris and Pence provide important – if opposite – qualities to their respective tickets. Where Biden is accused of being weak and lacking charisma, Harris brings strength and assertiveness. And if Trump is bombastic and unruly, Pence brings in a much more controlled attitude – one that does not necessarily stop him from interrupting his interlocutor, yet lends him an aura of respectability, even if the substance of what he claims is similar to Trump’s.

Harris and Pence’s confrontation might have been less loud or sensational, but it still was a match between personalities – and identities. Harris, the only member of either ticket to not have served in a presidential administration, had an opportunity to prove her leadership.

As a woman – and a Black, Asian-American – facing an older white man, she has a higher bar to clear to be considered fit for the role. The kind of sexist scrutiny that she has to withstand (about character, likability, ambition) combined with racist bias, put many obstacles in the way of her success in the debate. However, Harris was able to clear them all and she turned them to her advantage.

Be it in her rigorous accusation of Trump’s (and therefore Pence’s) unwillingness to clearly condemn white supremacy, or in her strong stand in favor of a woman’s right to choose with regard to ending a pregnancy, she used her identity and life experience to give weight to her arguments. It is no coincidence that her expressions spoke to women strongly: They saw themselves in her shoes having to listen to a man lecture on subjects that they know better than he does.

Like Hillary Clinton before her, Harris could not, like Biden, react to her opponent’s continuous interruptions by asking “will you just shut up, man,” for fear of coming across as too aggressive. But she could – and did – stand her ground. She addressed Pence’s interruptions in a way that will remain memorable for the debate and, in the bigger picture, for women and minorities who are suppressed by male power: “Mister Vice-President,” she said, “I am speaking.”