In high stakes VP debate, Harris and Pence portray two very different visions for America

In high stakes VP debate, Harris and Pence portray two very different visions for America
Comment: Despite both candidates attempting to appeal to a broad base of voters, the gulf between their parties was clear for all to see, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
6 min read
08 Oct, 2020
In comparison to the presidential debate, the VP face off was much more civil [Getty]
The sole vice-presidential debate in the 2020 election season promised to offer a significant contrast to the first debate between the two presidential candidates, and in this it did not disappoint. 

Still, it is a measure of the level of political discourse in the United States that the star of the evening might actually have been the housefly that landed on Vice President Mike Pence's carefully sculpted and bright white head of hair.

Pence repeatedly exceeded his time, interrupted Senator Kamala Harris, and tried to ignore the rules the moderator, but his comparatively subdued manner made him much less disruptive than President Donald Trump had been. It was still enough to force his challenger to push back, lest she sacrifice much of the precious time she had to speak.

The two candidates maintained at least a veneer of civility throughout, which meant that there was far more discussion of policy than the presidential candidates engaged in. Still, Pence was constantly evasive, refusing to answer the questions put to him and instead shifting to his talking points, most of which were misleading.

For her part, Harris made greater efforts to address questions raised by moderator Susan Page, but ended up dodging many of them too, perhaps in the belief that she would otherwise be ceding ground to Pence. She was also in the awkward position of having to speak for presidential candidate Joe Biden more than for herself, and they have some key policy differences, whereas Pence is more in sync with Trump.

This dynamic was particularly evident in the discussion on climate change and the environment. Harris, who has supported a ban on fracking, for example, argued forcefully that Biden does not support such a ban. It was an awkward moment, as fracking is a key issue for many environmentalists and swing state voters worried about job losses, and Pence was able to point out that Harris herself, at least until recently, seemed to hold a view different to that of her ticket.

It's a measure of the level of political discourse in the United States that the star of the evening might actually have been the housefly that landed on Vice President Mike Pence's hair

While that might have been uncomfortable for Harris, Pence overplayed his hand by insisting, very much in the vein of his boss, that Biden wanted to ban fracking, and abolish fossil fuels. While many progressives wish these were indeed Biden's positions, he has made it clear they are not.

This was emblematic of much of the evening. Pence repeatedly offered "alternative facts" such as claiming the administration has been active and effective in combating Covid-19 or touting his administration's record on the economy. Harris needed to pick and choose which statements she was going to counter in limited time, and for the most part, she parried them well.

Racial justice

When the debate turned to racial justice and Breonna Taylor, the Black woman gunned down in her home by police in Louisville, Kentucky whose case - along with that of George Floyd - has spurred protests for months, the audience got one of the starkest contrasts between the two candidates.

Harris said she did not believe justice had been served in Taylor's case, which was enflamed further last week when a grand jury declined to bring charges against any of the police officers over her death, only charging one with wanton endangerment for firing wildly and sending bullets into the apartment next door. She stopped short of calling for charges against the officers, but said, "Her family deserves justice. Her life was taken unjustifiably."

Pence said he "trusts our justice system," and the "grand jury that reviewed the evidence." This, despite the fact that two of the grand jurors have asked to be allowed to go public because they are concerned about the proceedings as well as how they have been portrayed to the public.

Foreign policy

Typically, these debates spare little time on foreign policy - an oddity given that presidents and vice presidents have far more power in foreign affairs than they do domestically -and this debate was no different.

However, the issue of the United States' policy toward Iran was raised and it shed some light on what is sure to be a significant difference between Trump administration policy and the approach of a potential Biden administration.

"We were in the Iran nuclear deal with friends, Harris said. "And because of Donald Trump's unilateral approach to foreign policy, coupled with his isolationism, he pulled us out and has made America less safe." Harris went on to point out that the US under Trump is isolated and mistrusted. She also pointed out the strained relationship between the US and its allies in NATO.

Rather than going on an anti-Iran tirade, Pence responded by oddly touting the Trump administration's decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that terminated what little possibility of negotiations with the Palestinians remained, and boasted about driving Islamic State (IS) out of its territorial strongholds, with little regard for the destruction and squalid conditions left in the wake of those operations.

Pence managed to convey a contempt for both the process and the facts that have become business as usual

He went on to say, "The American people deserve to know Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general was responsible for the death of hundreds of American service members. When the opportunity came, we saw him headed to Baghdad to kill more Americans. President Trump didn't hesitate and Qassem Soleimani is gone."

Leading Iranian-American scholar and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, Trita Parsi noted, "Interesting that Pence said that "the opportunity" arose to kill Qassem Soleimani. Remember that Trump (falsely) claimed that there was an imminent threat and the US had to act. Now we hear that the decision - that almost led to war - was taken because an "opportunity" arose..."

This isn't a trivial point. The Trump administration wanted to make the case that Soleimani represented an imminent threat because the killing was otherwise unlawful under international law. Certainly, given the contempt Trump and his key officials have shown for international law, this was a minor concern at best, and, as Pence demonstrated, its failure did not worry them at all. But it is worth noting for those who do care about such matters that, given Pence's own description, this was likely an illegal, extrajudicial execution.

Read more: Linda Sarsour is a steadfast ally, Biden cannot afford to forget that

Harris came out ahead

While Pence was certainly less disruptive than Trump was last week, he managed to convey a contempt for both the process and the facts that have become business as usual for this administration, even while he disingenuously tried to accuse Harris of exactly the same thing.

It fell flat and Harris, in keeping with the low-key strategy the Biden team has adopted throughout the campaign, kept her cool and stayed on point. One result of that was that she never really scored a knock-out blow against Pence in the vein of her performance in the primary debates, where she raised the issue of then-opponent Biden's history of support for some unpopular legislation.

That disappointed some, but with Biden enjoying his most comfortable lead of the campaign, the plan seems to have been to hold serve, and Harris did that well. With two more debates between Biden and Trump hanging in the balance - Trump has flatly refused to participate in a virtual format put forward by the committee - this was a reminder of what politics used to look like in the United States. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.