The Second Debate Was a Game of Deflection and Thoroughly Unsurprising

By: Emelie Eriksson

On the night of October 7th, the vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris (Dem) and Vice President Mike Pence (Rep) took place in Salt Lake City, Utah. The debate was moderated by Susan Page (USA Today), who valiantly attempted to bring more order to this debate than was previously observed on 29 September between Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. While the exchange between Harris and Pence was less chaotic and undoubtedly more civilized, it was a match of trying to get the last word in.

Pence especially appeared to find it difficult to stop talking when Page repeatedly but without results told him his time was up – a slightly more respectful way of stifling the competition as opposed, of course, to constantly interrupting and trying to drown them out.

The debate was further marked by incessant deflection. It brought no surprising revelations from either side, and can be boiled down to what is described as being on the ballot this November – Harris emphasized ‘the integrity of democracy’, whereas Pence touted the economy.

The 90 minutes of debate commenced with the oh-so-current issue of the coronavirus response, which saw Harris call the action (or inaction) of the Trump administration “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country”. She pointed out that the White House had knowledge of the seriousness of the outbreak two months prior to taking preventative measures and informing the public. There has been a lack of transparency comparable to that of Trump’s refusal to release his tax records, which Harris argued meant that he “forfeited the right to re-election”. This unquestionably came across as the Democratic ticket’s biggest selling point, since a recurring theme to the responses Harris doled out was that “Joe puts it all out there”, in contrast to Trump not understanding “what it means to be honest”.

Harris, in response to a question regarding a future coronavirus vaccine, went on to say that she would be first in line should doctors and medical experts approve it, but would opt out if Trump were the one to advise the public to take it – a remark meant to convey that Trump cannot be trusted.

Pence, in turn, responded with the most hypocritical sentence of the night: “stop playing politics with people’s lives”.

He emphasized the need for sacrifices and the prioritization of freedom, respecting the American people and trusting the public to make informed decisions (which is ironic considering the Trump administration’s tradition of withholding information). Pence deflected when asked about the transparency of health information by instead bringing up the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu outbreak in 2009. He also insisted there is a plan in place for health care for people with preexisting conditions who were covered by Obama’s Affordable Care Act but, just like every time the question has been asked over the last several years, refused to specify what that plan is. Large parts of the debate were marked by deflection, really, which applies to Harris as well. She especially was unable to assert whether a Biden administration would increase the number of Supreme Court justices in order to render recently-appointed conservative Amy Coney Barrett less influential (a question which in all fairness was posed like a challenge by Pence).

Another central topic of discussion was climate change, which Harris referred to as an “existential threat” whereas Pence simply stated that “the climate is changing” and went on to question what has caused it. He claimed that air and water in the U.S. are cleaner than they have ever been, which is not true, and promised that the Trump administration will “abolish fossil fuels” (again without specification) but insisted that this should not be done at any expense to the economy. Of course, in the long run, making investments for the environment will pay off in relation to the costs of climate change, meaning that Pence’s argument is construed on half-assing it (if I may be so bold) in order to be able to say that they are being more cost-effective in the short run. With Harris, there was talk of renewable energy, net zero emissions by 2050 and carbon neutrality by 2035. Pence touted forest management (in the case of wildfires), fracking and natural gas (because anything that contains the word ‘natural’ has to be good, right?). Furthermore, he was adamant that the Paris climate accord, which Biden would rejoin, and the Green New Deal, which Harris supported, have been terribly ineffective.

All this to say that Biden is a “cheerleader for”, and wants to “economically surrender to”, China.

Harris countered that the so-called trade war with China was lost and led to a recession, which according to her estimates means that the Trump administration will have lost more jobs than any other administration by the end of its term. She also alleged that Trump has “betrayed our friends”, “embraced dictators all over the world” and conclusively that people in America are less safe because of Trump’s handling of international relationships. Biden would hold Russia to account, she said, while Pence referred to Biden’s disapproval of the handling of Al Baghdadi in making the point that he “hesitates to act”.

At this junction, the subject of criminal justice reform was raised, where Pence expressed trust in the justice system and claimed that there is no excuse for “rioting and looting”. He also made a point of finding Harris’ allegations of systemic racism to be an insult to police officers and enforcers of justice. It was obvious that Pence mainly wanted to appease business owners (and racist Trump supporters, I suppose), in addition to industries on essentially every issue. Harris’ arguments, on the other hand, were largely aimed towards blue-collar Americans, which she made explicit by stating that Biden would invest in American families (through free public university education for low-income households, for instance).

Finally, Page posed a question that pertained to Trump’s noncommittal to a peaceful transition of power and how the parties would act, respectively, in such an event. Harris responded somewhat deflectively that Biden, should he win, could and would bring the country together. Pence on his end dictated that he believes Trump will score another victory, but turned the question on its head by raising the investigation into the Trump campaign and election interference in 2016 as non-acceptance of the election results by Democrats. This is a perfect illustration of how far partisanship and political polarization have gone in the United States: utilizing the usually considered childish deflection of responsibility that is ‘she started it’.

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