More “blame game” than offering solutions as Harris comes out on top as the first and only Vice-Presidential debate of 2020 took place in Utah last night, with Kamala Harris and Mike Pence going head to head in a further battle for Presidential succession- and perhaps America’s very soul.
Debate season in the USA brings out the night owl in early birds; the internationalist in a non US citizen. The chance to watch political giants schmoosing greasily, or stumbling and blustering their way through debates becomes the equivalent of the UFC for those politically inclined. Screaming at the TV, picking apart arguments, and most importantly, choosing a side.
It’s doubtful if the latter is even a choice anymore, with worldwide condemnation of potentially America’s worst president ever, yet Trump and his camp have their fervent supporters globally, notwithstanding his steady erosion of the veneer of professionalism that accompanies the presidency, taking the concept of accountability and smashing it with a ludicrous “Trump” engraved, tweet spouting, business-ready sledgehammer.
Observing and implementing appropriate social distancing measures, the arena was ready. Audience members were required to wear face masks, while the candidates’ allocated spots were strictly 12 feet away from one another. A stark juxtaposition of sensible logic in the face of a pandemic, and Trump’s stance on the matter. One has to wonder what the stage and subsequent seating arrangements would look like if they reflected Trump’s loose anti-establishment, fake ideology, and idiotic negligence: the audience corralled like livestock into pens, encouraged that the mask isn’t necessary as 60 households merrily crack open the beers?
Harris and Pence arrived at Kingsbury Hall, inside the University of Utah, for the only Vice-Presidential debate. Susan Page, of USA Today moderated the proceedings, to which she ascribed feeling “a great honour” for being chosen to do so.
Kicking off proceedings, Page alluded to the previous disastrous debate between Trump and Biden when calling for a “civilised” debate, articulating that while a lively debate is warranted, the American people deserve to have a structured, civil, and coherent debate presented to them- much unlike the interruptions and deliberate attempts to sabotage the established proceedings that occurred last week, culminating in Biden’s now meme-famous “Will you shut up man!” sentiments concerning Trump’s constant interruptions.
In any debate setting, one will try to draw attention to the failings of the other camp. Starting with the COVID pandemic, Harris started the scramble by failing to really answer questions concerning how a Biden administration would handle things differently; her focus was on highlighting the extreme failure of Trump’s administration to reign the virus in due to laisse-faire attitudes across his camp and policies.
While dodging the question on how exactly Biden’s term would directly deal with COVID from a policy perspective, Harris made valid and true points rightly decrying Trump’s handing as “the worst in American history”. Her highlighting of failures appeals to voters sharing sentiments over concerns of gross mismanagement of the situation. It’s an easy mark.
Harris went in hard on Trump, Pence, and other close advisors whom allegedly knew on the 28th of January that the virus was airborne, and subsequently failed to act in spite of devastating knowledge pertinent to public health.
Harris reminded the world just how insane the Trump administration’s reaction to COVID was: denial, cover up, pretending it was a hoax, the ever enduring “fake news” spiel. Failure to act is one thing, denial after denial when faced with life threatening scenarios for your country is deplorable.
She offered a small glimpse of a differential road map under Biden however. Harris implicitly stated that under Biden’s administration, vaccine manufacture and subsequent free access to said vaccine is of paramount importance. This is a stark contrast to the cut-throat pharmaceutical capitalist leanings of the Trump administration that appear more focused on how to market, patent, retain and sell said vaccine.
Harris also alluded to vague improvements to test and trace with direction but lacking in substance. Whether this was due to a lack of actual concrete plan, or Harris’ demonstration of awareness that these debates are about scoring points against your opponent remains to be seen. The public generally recalls failings over plans for change- and the Trump administration is a veritable buffet cart of failure.
Pence’s rebuttal managed to deflect Harris’ criticisms slightly with an ease Trump would struggle to emulate. Pence is far more experienced at political spin, whereas Trump is all filibuster, bluster, and personal. Speeches he gives have long possessed the distinct tone of a mad gentleman’s club chinwag, where you’re being cajoled into renting a timeshare, vehicle entirely out with your means, or your human soul out to the highest bidder. Pence is more sophisticated, which isn’t hard.
Page asked Pence why the death rate was so high in the USA in comparison to other developed, wealthy nations citing Canada as a neighbourly example. Pence began by focusing on the decision to stop all travel between China and the USA that Trump undertook early in the pandemic’s growth. Pence highlighted how Biden was unsupportive of this decision which he claimed saved “thousands of American lives”.
A casual glance at America’s handling of COVID-19 under Trump’s administration clearly illustrates massive failings, yet Pence diverts from these overt examples by focusing on fast action Trump took against China, clearly dodging the fact this measure was about as successful as Trump’s hair transplant given the high death and contraction rates within the States.
Pence alludes to China as the guilty party, scapegoating the nation for the USA’s own failings to contain the virus- after all China has no jurisdiction on American soil to determine policy. Some Trump supporters deflect all US failings by simply blaming the Chinese, which Pence smoothly resurfaces in the debate.
He subtly attacks Biden for his perception that a cessation to Chinese travel is xenophobic, rattling the cages of white supremacists, casual dissenters with America First goggles on, and the average Joe and Jane. After all if it came from China why would Biden object? How un-American. How pandering to minorities when the Great American People should be first.
In light of the Black Lives Matter resurgence and the subsequent violence perceived to be coming from both sides of the argument, Pence employs a good basis for monopolising on the attack many average Americans feel is levelled at them for racism.
Pence also briefly touches on Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s plan for developing (and selling at a markup price) a vaccine for COVID-19. One can almost forget the literal insanity surrounding the Trump administration with the way Pence dolls up and spins the good work the current administration are doing, despite statistical data showing the failures in black and white.
Much of these figures are deemed as fake news by the President, creating a vacuum in which reality and construction of reality violently clash, resulting in the loss of trust in mainstream media and aforementioned statistical data. Pence’s tactics are nothing new: focus on the positives and deny the negatives, a tale as old as time in the debating arenas. What is new in a sense is the complete disregard for information. Criticism is simply swept away under “fake news”, and this administration has facilitated a climate where trust and validity are old, dusty concepts to be thought of fondly and with smug superiority as relics of a pre-internet society.
Pence tops off his opening answer with accusations of “plagiarism” levelled at Harris and Biden’s roadmap for COVID-19, expressing he sees no difference between Trump’s and Biden’s.
COVID-19 is definitely the most pertinent issue to address for leaders globally, hence the hyper focus on Harris and Pence’s respective replies and plans for the situation.
Harris, the Californian Senator, responded to Pence’s hot takes on his performance as Head of COVID Taskforce and subsequently the efforts of the Trump administration in general by drawing attention to her initial point that Pence and Trump covered up COVID initially, and that any efforts by the Trump administration are soured by that this inaction, implying their actions afterwards were out of obligation rather than genuine concern for the American public. Harris quotes that the Trump administration justified this cover up as “wanting to keep people calm”, which she scathingly attacks.
Most damningly for Pence is the fact, as Harris emphasised, that over 200,000 Americans have died from the virus, the highest death toll relative to populous in the Western world. Harris states wryly that “whatever they’re doing, it hasn’t worked.”
We manage to get 9 minutes into the debate without interruptions, with Pence attempting to talk during Harris’ allocated time. Harris responded by requesting to be allowed to finish to which Pence ceased his chatter for the time being. Harris attempts to stir feelings within the public by asking questions: “How calm did you feel when you thought you couldn’t see your parents and thought you might kill them?”
Pence similarly uses an “appeal to the people” tactic in his rebuttal when he slathers on the flattery concerning the ever-great, collective, hardy constitution of the American people, pandering to the stereotypes of the Land of the Free. Pence expresses that not a day goes by where he doesn’t think of those who lost their lives, then immediately drives home the strength and bravery of the American people during this time.
Both candidates personally address and pander to their voters, but Pence oozes a certain brand of new-low-sleaze by relying on old faithful “American strength” to placate those affected by COVID while their administration’s blatant disregard for PPE enforcement and mishandling of the situation is, in some cases, directly responsible for fatalities. When your own President refuses to adhere to guidelines and maniacally alludes to conspiracies every week, one has to consider the implications of that example in the grand scheme of fighting COVID-19.
Pence twists Harris’ point about COVID measures not working into a classic take on how disrespectful to American sacrifice that statement is, cleverly implying Harris is shaming those who lost their lives. Entrenched propaganda that evokes the defence of Vietnam and other stoic American wars: COVID is not a war. To criticise is to disrespect sacrifice, a sentiment which will echo well amongst voters with patriotism in their blood. Subverting facts with façade.
Pence refused to stop rambling about crediting the American people with bravery and stoicism, while deflecting from his own failures, frankly laying it on thick, overrunning his allocated time. Nothing new in the world of politics but the distinct feeling of syrupy flattery over substance leaves a bad taste, but will be popular with a certain patriotic crowd.
Pence begins to falter in his next question, where he is directly confronted with evidence that he was present at an event with no social distancing, which led to an outbreak and spread amongst those present. Page rightly questions how the American people can be asked to follow guidelines when their government does not. This is a sentiment echoed across government administrations globally as across the world citizens have observed those in power break regulations and rules with little consequence or accountability. The old adage of “one rule for them and one rule for us” is apparently eternally relevant unfortunately.
Pence actually tries to completely deflect from his and colleagues rule breaking and again focuses on the great intellect and personal independence the American people possess: doesn’t matter if I’m breaking the rules, people will understand the importance of them because they are American. And fantastic. Simple. He emphasises how the population will magically absorb the guidelines and adhere to them when their leaders obviously don’t.
His narrative is plainly that the administration told people what to do, and that should be enough to inspire them to make the right choices. The anti-establishment, federally critical sentiment is clear. Pence appeals to those who feel their rights are being stripped away, to the conspiracy theorists, to anti-maskers and anti-vaccination crowds alike, to the average person that simply doesn’t like any iota of their life being controlled by a government. He is spinning lack of enforcement of rules as an empowering and non-invasive active choice.
Much of the subsequent debate continues in the fashion of Pence continuing to spin the Great American People bit- Trump’s power lies in people’s perception that he cuts red tape and allows freedom from federalist bureaucratic laws; laws that ironically and tragically may improve the lives of Americans. Pence attacks Harris and Biden on the premise that they will enforce mandates to control the actions of citizens- even if it would potentially save their lives. The American perception of central government has led to a strange climate of distaste for a national healthcare service and countless other policies that are perceived by some citizens as “being told what to do”. Pence utilises this fear of central government actively throughout the debate to some success.
Harris continues to drive home the point that Trump’s administration refused to tell the public the truth, employing a similar tactic regarding American self-reliance to criticise the lack of preparatory time citizens had to “protect themselves” and form a personal contingency plan for their lives. Harris knows this point is directly at odds with the Trump-led anti-government sentiment expressed by Pence- sitting on information looks a lot like a central government denying freedom to it’s citizens in a bureaucratic manner, something Trump professes to detest. The lack of transparency is good ammo for Harris although she uses it frequently.
When questioned on vaccination, Harris states that despite half of Americans arguing against allowing themselves to be vaccinated, she would be “first in line” if chief medical officers approved it. She would not take it if told only by Donald Trump to do so.
Vaccination is a precarious topic in the States: politicians have to be tactful about balancing a strong anti-establishment sentiment amongst the people, with creating policies and solutions that citizens will accept. A fear of some humans worldwide is forced inoculation, even if it would save their lives, therefore when establishing and working towards a vaccine, administrations must be cautious and aware of the demonstrative nature of a vaccine before it is implemented.
Pence accused Harris of undermining the vaccine, and “playing politics with people’s lives” in a truly “screaming at your screen” moment. It’s a strong moment for Pence as his voice almost cracks, fake tears just about roll down his stony cheeks as he equates Harris’ concerns with rushing a vaccine through Big Pharma as playing with the lives of citizens. The extensive trials required for the approval of a vaccine contradict Pence’s audacious brag about how fast they’ve got cracking on it. Harris stated if a vaccine went through the proper channels for distribution and approval she would be “first in line.”
Pence also expertly drops in the swine flu almost-pandemic of 2009, during the Obama administration where over 60 million Americans contracted the disease. Pence argues that if swine flu had been as fatal as COVID-19, the Obama administration would have been faced with more accusations of failure than Trump’s current administration. A factually accurate statement which does suffice to highlight that perhaps any administration would be struggling and failing regarding COVID right now. A smart deflection without resorting to abject manipulation on the part of Pence.
Another key point of debate was the age of the Presidential candidates, and what subsequent contingency plans the prospective Vice-Presidents had cooked up, or were planning to articulate together. Either Biden and Trump will make history as the oldest president, and to fail to actively concoct a back-up plan is irresponsible considering the speculated waning cognitive ability of both respectively.
Pence simply deflected from this issue by going back to Harris’ undermining of the vaccine when asked about contingency plans for Presidential disability or inability to perform their role.
Harris responds with an actual answer to Page’s question. Sort of. With an advertisement of her achievements prior to being asked to run as Vice with Biden, Harris articulates an impressive slew of achievements including her status as first woman, and first African American elected as California’s Attorney General, her aggressive fight against injustice, and desire for progressive social policies.
Harris is aware of the position she plays in accruing the left vote in America- not to discredit her achievements, but she mentions them here to really say, hey, BLM supporters, leftists, social justice advocates and reformists, I’m your gal. Harris is perhaps also setting up for the very likely eventuality that, if elected, Biden may pass away during her time as vice, leading to her ascension to Presidency.
Harris is letting voters know she thinks she’s got the chops for the top job. By mentioning how she and Joe were raised to respect the dignity of being a public servant, she directly draws comparisons to Trump’s frankly utter debasement of the decorum surrounding being a public servant. Or at least the pretence.
Pence, give him his due, acknowledged the enormity of Harris’ achievements, and said he respected Biden’s 47 years in public service. Damage control for Trump’s embarrassing lack of procedural manners?
The Vice-Presidential role may have to adapt and expand to cater to this eventuality that the President may be unable to function, with the scope of their role increased. How this will be enforced in law and articulated if constitutional amendment is required could be a staggeringly long judicial process. Something more informal and temporary would be far easier to implement.
When asked about health transparency, Harris brilliantly uses that key word to exalt Biden for having 47 years of public service under his belt and therefore traceably transparent in comparison to shady businessman Trump. She also tries to vilify and draw focus to Trump’s recent tax report scandal, which saw him pay just $750 in tax, and his apparent serious debt of over $400,000,000 too, as Harris pointed out, unknown parties. She draws parallels between health transparency, and financial transparency, suggesting that voters deserve to know what powers may be influencing their President’s decisions on the world stage.
Despite Page literally addressing how evasive and unwilling Trump’s doctors have been regarding information concerning his health, Pence schmoozes right over it, agreeing that transparency is essential and that Trump’s administration will continue to do so.
To the tax comments, Pence can only muster a feeble “the President is a businessman” as defence, making promises about creating jobs, suggesting Tump’s time as a businessman is an asset. Laughable when he’s literally in hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. The old “fake news” comes back to play again as Pence casually states that “the President says those reports were not accurate”, a worryingly common trend throughout not just Trump’s administration, but globally, as accountability fades as easily as a half hearted “it wasn’t me”.
The next portion of this unpleasant trifle concerns the economy. Harris and Pence were both asked questions concerning their plans for getting unemployment down, replacing jobs, and contingency plans.
Harris outlined plans to raise billions in revenue for planned economic programs, including the Green New Deal, in taxation for the ultra wealthy: “Only those who earn $400,000 a year or more will face increased taxation.” Harris emphatically stated that on day 1, Biden will revoke Trump’s tax breaks.
The typical spin war of addressing taxation then took place in classic fashion, with Pence arguing the age old take that taxation is a bad thing, terrifying vulnerable voters into believing that they will be taxed heavily under a Biden administration, spinning tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy into some altruistic gesture for those in need. We see you Pence.
“You heard it here first. Senator Harris and Joe Biden want to increase your taxes.” Pence is equating the average American home with the super elite, and he knows it. Tax breaks for all is a popular right wing economic strategy to justify ridiculous incomes by giving the average family a few hundred quid more spending money at the end of the year. Pence brilliantly shoehorns in the small amount of extra money the average family has- as we all know, it’s all about how you eat at the end of the day.
Neither candidate has all the solutions for the economic recession that COVID has brought, but Harris certainly pips Pence to the post by miles considering his strategy is social Darwinism in a convenient sports bottle to purchase for just a small fee. Realistically Pence subscribes to trickle down economics and believes the billionaires and millionaires will spell a way out of this trouble with their “innovation” and job creation. That may prove to be accurate in some sense, regarding job creation when Elon Musk needs space lackeys and so on and so forth, but the sense of social equality and taxation justice Harris subscribes to would give the Government substantial funds to improve the health and living conditions of the average American worker.
Summarising it nicely, Harris said that Pence perceives the economy strength based on how rich people are. She claims Biden and herself perceive the strength of the economy as being only as good as the health and condition of the worker.
Sounds good, in theory. But can Harris and Biden deliver on these promises in a climate and country divided, with half so resistant to government intervention in their lives?
That concludes part 1 of the Harris vs Pence debate; stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow, where we dissect climate change and more economic growth plans for the future of America, in perhaps the most important election in American history.
Featured Image Credit: Getty