The first vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence was a comparatively far more civilized affair than the first presidential debate, it informed audiences and enabled a somewhat constructive dialogue. There were, of course, some mistakes made by both candidates, such as interruptions, dodging of questions and some claims made by both candidates that, upon being fact-checked, were either inaccurate or exaggerated.
The dynamic between the candidates was calm and respectful, Kamala Harris came across as assertive and intelligent, while Pence seemed calm and detached. In an article for Vox, Jane Coaston posited that Vice President Pence, who is a contrast to President Trump in terms of his demeanor, is a “standard issue republican” and his appearance was an attempt to normalize the face conservatism again. Indeed, Pence’s policy stances, like President Trump, are quintessentially republican, if packaged in a more palatable and sobering demeanor.
Another contrast from the debacle of the presidential debate was the marked focus on the American people. The phrase was repeated constantly by both candidates throughout the debate, albeit with different notions surrounding the best ways in which these interests might actually be addressed.
On issues of climate change and the coronavirus, Pence predictably took the route of a minimal interventionist approach. He failed to outline specific plans regarding the management of these issues, instead focusing on minimizing the damage done by the lack of action taken by the Trump administration, defending Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Harris was quick to call out the administration’s mishandling of the pandemic, especially in terms of downplaying the severity and scope of the virus.
Healthcare has become even more important in light of the hardship facing the country. Pence spoke to the failure of Obamacare and stated that the Trump administration does, in fact, have a plan to insure those with preexisting conditions. Like Pence, Harris also addressed the topic of health care, stating that under the Biden-Harris administration, people with preexisting conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, will be protected and insured.
On the issue of climate change, Pence was quick to critique the Biden-Harris climate policy, citing loss of jobs and economic turmoil as negative consequences, critiquing the Green New Deal as well as the Biden plan. Pence did not refer to any specific plan regarding tackling the issue, instead making vague references to “science” and saying “the climate is changing.” Once again, he did not outline a cohesive strategy or plan to deal with the repercussions of the climate crisis. Kamala Harris outlined how, under the Biden administration, there would be investments in renewable energy, which would allow the United States to be carbon neutral by 2035.
The Trump-Pence administration has been characterized by their lack of concrete plans to address crucial issues, additionally, in the right-wing vein, they have vehemently advocated for freedom over regulation, which perhaps represents one of the main points of conflict between left-wing and right-wing approaches.
Yet, the freedom advocated for by the likes of Pence and Trump is a complex, chameleonic one. Freedom and liberty are used as veils for maintaining the balance of political and financial power and ensuring it is concentrated in a select few. Climate change denialists frequently use freedom and liberty as counters to taking concrete action on climate change. As apparent from Pence’s stance and the positioning of many republicans, there seems to be a direct correlation between rejecting climate change and endorsing the free market, according to scientists.
Furthermore, a free market and climate change denial seem to go hand in hand with low taxation. Pence argued that the Biden-Harris campaign would enforce a policy of high taxation and discard Trump’s measures that saved the average American family $2000, a claim which was debunked by Harris who clarified that Biden does not plan to raise taxes for those who earn less than $400,000 a year.
Pence’s mention of taxes is an attempt to address the financial hardship that many in the nation are facing today. However, considering the lack of support provided for those adversely impacted by the pandemic, the businesses facing hardship and most importantly the lack of a systematic series of policies and actions when it comes to issues that directly impact the wellbeing of the American people, from the pandemic to healthcare and climate change, this begins to feel like more of a capitalization than a legitimate creation of options and resources for those in need.
Unsurprisingly, republican proponents of freedom rarely extend this notion of liberty to women’s rights over their own bodies. Pence stated that he unapologetically stands for the sanctity of life when asked about the future of the landmark case of Roe vs. Wade, though he did not say that he would ban abortion as he has done previously. He also endorsed President’s Trump pick of Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court, stating that he hoped she would receive a fair hearing, unlike the one that Justice Brett Kavanaugh received due to sexual abuse allegations against him. Harris maintained that she would continue to support a woman’s right to choose although she did not go into specifics regarding how this right may be protected, especially if Barrett’s nomination is confirmed.
Kamala Harris did speak to the systematic racism that has been at the heart of the recent surge of the Black Lives Matter protests, specifically invoking Breonna Taylor and her case, while Pence stated that he trusted the “justice system.” While Biden does not support defunding the police, Harris mentioned that the administration will ban chokeholds and abolish private prisons, amongst other measures to minimize racism and police brutality.
The debate may have been a respectful and calm exchange of ideas and arguments in contrast to the presidential debate counterpart however, that does not decry from the fact that it laid bare some gaping holes in the policies of the Trump-Pence campaign and administration. The American people were mentioned over and over again, and in implicit ways, the notion of freedom vs regulation reared its head surrounding issues such as climate change, healthcare and the pandemic.
At times the right-wing conception of freedom feels like a chameleonic entity, advocating for low taxation but ignoring hardship caused by lack of resources and healthcare, standing firm on not enforcing nationwide mask mandates but espousing that a woman may not choose the fate of her own life and her foetus, trusting in the sanctity of American institutions and people all the while disregarding that the function of government is to govern, which automatically implies some kind of regulation that is in the interests of the people, which advocates for a blind belief in the sanctity of institutions and key figures, all the while discounting that these are products of an imperfect system subject to biases and discrimination and much be treated as such.
These are debates that have always existed within the political spectrum. This time, however, especially for this administration, the notion of freedom seems to be the lack of a plan, an absence where there should be decision making. While a modicum of ambiguity exists within the Biden-Harris ticket as well, it is far from the sheer lack demonstrated by the Trump-Pence campaign.
The circumstances of this election have made this debate far more important than in previous elections. Firstly, due to the lack of coherent dialogue in the presidential debate, voters are not looking to the vice-presidential debate for pointers on the ethos of each ticket. Secondly, Trump and Biden’s ages–which make them the oldest presidential candidates in American history–as well as Trump’s recent diagnosis of Covid-19, heighten the possibility that the vice-presidents may end up being president, a fact which makes the vice presidential debate more important than ever before. Finally, the importance of the vice presidential debate is, in itself, an indicator of the chaos that we are embroiled in.
The vice presidential debate was encouraging in its focus on the interests of the American people. Considering the cataclysm that has been 2020, it is this kind of focus that is needed, away from banter and partisan in-fighting and towards an evaluation of the real issues facing this country and the world. After all, when considering freedom and regulation, a concrete plan and lack thereof, it is always the people who thrive or suffer.