Why This Year’s Vice-Presidential Debate Mattered

Wednesday, October 7, marked the 2020 general election’s first and last Vice-Presidential Debate between current Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris of California. 

It’s actually rather unusual that this year’s vice-presidential debate garnered so much attention.  VP debates are typically a nonissue. They are overshadowed by presidential debates and likely do very little to sway the opinion of the American people. But as many news outlets have pointed out – this year’s debate was different for a variety of reasons.

First, this debate mattered because Trump and Biden are both the oldest nominees ever for President, with President Trump being 74 years old and Democratic Nominee Joe Biden being 77 years old at time of writing.  Their ages have caught public attention and brought more focus to their potential successors.

Second, this debate was significant because, at the time of airing, we didn’t know whether or not there would even be another debate during this election cycle due to the coronavirus outbreak at the White House, which has infected even the President, who was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three days. The future of the debates between Biden and Trump, of which there are two more scheduled, remains uncertain as Trump rejects debating virtually.

Third, the vice presidential debate mattered this year because the September 29 presidential debate was widely considered disastrous, with ABC News host George Stephanopoulos calling it, “The worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.” Hostility and President Trump’s consistent interruptions of both his opponent and the moderator likely distracted from the important policy issues that should have taken the spotlight.

Wednesday’s VP debate wasn’t filled with as much chaotic debate and crosstalk as the Presidential debate. However, it still proved contentious.  While more civil than the Trump-Biden debate, the candidates did interrupt each other, with Pence in particular speaking over time or interrupting. One CBS tally counted ten interruptions from Pence and five from Harris.

One key point of discussion during the debate was the coronavirus, with Harris calling the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis the “greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

Pence, in turn, claimed that the Biden plan “[read] an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way.”

Both candidates did dodge questions throughout the debate.  For example, Harris swerved clear of a question on Supreme Court packing. And during the discussion on the coronavirus, Pence addressed Trump’s restrictions on travel with China rather than answer the question posed by moderator Susan Page, “Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?”

And towards the debate’s end, Page faced the candidates with a question not dissimilar to one posed towards the end of the first Presidential debate.  In an allusion to the complicated and contentious nature of this year’s election, Page asked both candidates about the peaceful transfer of power, and what they would do if the Biden ticket wins and Trump refuses to cede power.

Harris did not detail a precise strategy, vowing simply that they would “fight for our democracy, and [fight] for the integrity of our democracy” and concluding her answer by urging the American people to vote.

In turn, Pence’s unclear response seems to echo Trump’s own answer from the first Presidential debate.  When speaking, Pence instead emphasized that he believed that the Trump-Pence ticket would win the election. He also re-iterated a piece of misinformation commonly used by the Trump campaign, stating that mail-in voting would “create a massive opportunity for voter fraud.”

And while this debate was remarkably civil compared to the rest of this election and the debate that preceded it, it did not entirely escape the slight element of the absurd that has affected the rest of the election, with a fly landing on Pence’s head during the debate and remaining atop his hair for two minutes. It captivated the internet’s attention and became a key part of much public discussion.

While the fly may have swooped in and stolen the spotlight, the vice-presidential debate was an incredibly important event this year.  Both candidates took the time to double down on their party’s stances without a constant litany of crosstalk and interruptions.  It can’t really be said that this debate brought any shocking revelations to light, and while it may have helped some undecided voters pick a side, it likely didn’t change the minds of many people who have already chosen their favored candidate. But it may just be the last debate we get this election cycle, and it will almost certainly be the last debate that has any semblance of civility.

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