2020 US Election, Jason Jarvis

Harris wins VP debate

Challenger advances a clearer vision for the future of America in Vice presidential debate

Dr. Jason L. Jarvis, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA

This was a much more orderly and clear debate than the first Presidential debate.  Pence and Harris acted like adults, allowing for more direct clash on substantive issues.  Kamala Harris won the debate because she showed poise, intelligence and presented a coherent vision on key policy issues.  In contrast, Pence seemed unprepared to defend the Trump agenda, while enduring a series of embarrassing stylistic issues that hurt his credibility throughout the debate.

Style and Manner

The moderator did a great job of trying to keep control of the debate but was not entirely successful.  Pence speaks in a much calmer tone than Trump and this worked to his benefit in many cases.  He seems genuine, rational and empathetic.  However, despite these advantages, Pence looked irritated and regularly interrupted Harris.  He also repeatedly talked over the moderator, becoming the living embodiment of mansplaining and patriarchal jerks in offices across America.  In contrast, Harris consistently smiled through the debate, particularly when Pence was being his most disrespectful. It is possible that the Trump campaign no longer needs female voters to break for them, but Pence’s mansplaining strategy is mystifying.

In addition to mansplaining, Pence had some issues during this debate that undermined his credibility.  First: what was wrong with Pence’s left eye? Every time he turned to look at Harris he appeared as though he was sick or intoxicated. His left eye was bloodshot in a very disturbing way. Whether it is sleep deprivation, sickness or the dry air of Utah, he could have used some eye drops.  He did not look well.  Additionally, during the debate on Breonna Taylor, a black fly landed on Pence’s snow white head.  The fly stayed there for a good ten minutes, as Pence denied the existence of systemic racism and pretended that Trump hasn’t praised white supremacists.  Pence seemed unaware of the fly, or the irony.  Perhaps he simply thought it would look weird to wave it away.  Regardless, the fly was another aspect of the stylistic woes in Pence’s delivery.

Substance and Matter

Both candidates were guilty of changing the subject and refusing to answer the question posed, as with Question 2 about the “role of the Vice President” when the President is incapacitated.  Pence attacked Obama for not controlling swine flu (continuing the debate on Question 1), while Harris gave a canned speech about family, hard work and public service.  Americans will be left to wonder when power should be passed, an important consideration given the age of both POTUS candidates.

There were, however, key areas of both clash and agreement.  Predictably, on COVID-19 Harris attacked and Pence had little response except to blame China.  This racist refrain ignores the fact that other countries simply don’t have the rate of the virus that exists in America.  It is also stupid: if China was trying to attack America with COVID-19 – why did they give it to themselves first?  The harshest part of this exchange for Pence came from the moderator, who noted that the SCOTUS announcement had been a super-spreader event.  Pence, the leader of the COVID-19 task force, attended without a mask.  Pence praised the “American people,” but never effectively defended his own record, much less Trump’s.  This was a bad start for Pence, and compounded the stylistic problems that arose as the debate progressed.

Fracking was an example of bizarre agreement.  Despite its destruction of water tables and the environment (not to mention methane emissions) both sides defended fracking. Harris claimed they wouldn’t ban it and Pence claimed they would.  I have no explanation for this except that it demonstrates the continuing power of the fossil fuel industry in American politics at a time when we need to ban them. Natural gas is fossil fuel that has very little net savings in emissions when production is accounted for. Sad.  Nonetheless, the clash on climate change was significant and while Pence repeated slogans, criticized Paris, and continued to pretend the science was unsettled – Harris rattled off policy initiatives such as investing in renewable energy and going to NetZero emissions by 2050. 

Harris was strong on the issue of global leadership and our abandonment of NATO and went on the offensive on China noting that “We lost the trade war” after Pence falsely claimed it had created jobs.  Harris was also strong on her discussion of judges.  When Pence claimed Biden and Harris would pack the court Harris retorted: “Let’s talk about packing the court” – noting that 50 appeals court judges had been appointed by Trump and “not one was black.”  Harris also recited Lincoln’s decision not to appoint a Supreme Court justice during an election year.  In sum, Harris simply showed up with more ammunition, better non-verbal communication and a clear vision for the country.  Kamala for the win.


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