Reviews | What we learned from the vice-presidential debate

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Wednesday night’s debate between Senator Kamala Harris of California and Vice President Mike Pence may have been more conventional than last week’s presidential debate – not a high bar to cross – but there were many ways which he was not qualified as normal.

In one corner you had the man on the front line to take the place of a president who had just been hospitalized with a fatal illness with which he may still be sick. In the other corner, you had the first black woman and the first Indo-American woman to participate in a debate on the U.S. general election, alongside someone who, at 78, would be the oldest sitting president.

What have we learned from the candidates’ responses and non-responses, and what does the election debate mean, now in less than four weeks? Here is what people are saying.

Given the continuing coronavirus outbreak in the White House, many experts have warned that an in-person debate should not take place at all. Mr Pence has tested negative for the virus, but according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who have been in close contact with an infected person – defined as a case of being within six feet for a total of 15 minutes or more, from two days before the onset of symptoms or a positive test result – should be quarantined for 14 days even if they do not test positive.

Nonetheless, CDC Director Dr Robert Redfield, posted a memo On Tuesday, he allowed Mr Pence to participate in the debate, saying that based on his doctor’s description of his movements, he was not in close contact with anyone with Covid-19.

The note did little to quell people’s skepticism. “He was sitting in a sea of ​​people with Covid,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease expert at Harvard, told The Times. “There’s no way he’s going anywhere.”

Columbia virologist Angela Rasmussen, tweeted Wednesday:

And while Wednesday night’s debate featured plexiglass shields as a safety measure, experts told my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli they would have done nothing to protect Ms Harris if Mr Pence was infected, since the virus is suspended in the air. Linsey Marr, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech and an expert on airborne viruses, laughed when she saw a photo of the debate setup. “It’s absurd,” she said.

A relatively inexpensive set of fans and filtration devices is a superior precautionary measure, but experts have agreed that the safest option is to move the proceedings online. As the Times editorial board points out, presidential debates from a distance have already taken place: in 1960, the third debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon took place with contestants on separate coasts. “A virtual confrontation may not be ideal for assessing suitors – but it is far more important to protect the health of everyone involved,” the board wrote.

As politicians are accustomed to, Mr Pence and Mrs Harris indulged in slight exaggerations and rhetorical flourishes, my colleague David Leonhardt Remarks. “But Pence was much more dishonest,” he wrote. “At several points he seemed to want to run on a record that didn’t exist,” distorting not only his own but also Mr. Biden’s.

Mr. Pence also changed the subject almost every time he was asked a difficult question. At one point, he dodged the question of whether the Trump administration had a plan to protect patients with pre-existing conditions if it was successful in overturning the Affordable Care Act. (It doesn’t.) In another, he declined to say whether he would want to ban all abortions in his home state of Indiana if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. He also ignored a question about why the death toll in the United States from the coronavirus, as a percentage of our population, is higher than that of almost every other wealthy country.

But Mr Pence perhaps made his most consistent dodge when debate host Susan Page asked him what he would do if President Trump refused a peaceful transition of power if Biden won. “Just as Mr. Trump has done on numerous occasions,” observed the Times’ Reid J. Epstein, “Mr. Pence refused to say what he would do – and he made no commitment to accept a result. negative. “

Ms. Harris herself made some significant deviations. Like Mr Pence, she did not answer Ms Page’s question, inspired by the fact that whoever wins the election will be oldest president in American history on the day of the inauguration, to find out if she had discussed “guarantees or procedures in matters of presidential invalidity” with her running mate. She also danced around Mr Pence’s direct question on whether Democrats would add Supreme Court justices if Justice Amy Coney Barrett was upheld.

“Given their general desire to close the left on other issues, this makes me think that this is something they do not want to exclude as an option,” noted my colleague Jamelle Bouie.

There are few topics on which the political commitments of the two campaigns diverge more than climate change. Asked about the increase in extreme weather conditions, Mr Pence suggested that scientists have yet to reach a consensus on whether humans are causing climate change – they have and we are. the sums – and the policies of his administration only serve to exacerbate it.

But Ms Harris, rather than arguing for more aggressive action on climate change, has mainly fought on the Trump administration’s grounds, stressing that “they don’t believe in science” and pushing back against them. Mr Pence’s false claims that Mr Biden plans to ban hydraulic fracturing. (The issue was seen as potentially decisive for voters in Pennsylvania, a key pivotal state, although a more recent poll challenges this conventional wisdom.)

[Related: The best case for and against a fracking ban]

Of course, no debate can cover all political disagreements, but there have been particularly glaring omissions.

  • War: “How depressing that on the 19th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, the war received no attention other than a passing reference.” tweeted Stephen Wertheim, deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Three-quarters of Americans want our troops to go home. Ending war should be a priority, even a source of national unity when we need it most. “

  • Schools: “No questions about the closure of the country’s school system and the millions of children who currently have virtually no access to organized education ”, wrote Times reporter Dana Goldstein.

  • LGBTQ rights: “Of all the things Kamala Harris raised as rights as a risk at SCOTUS, same-sex marriage, which is currently under threat, has not been mentioned,” tweeted reporter Lydia Polgreen, referring to news that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito appeared to urge the Supreme Court on Monday to reconsider its landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

More Americans said Ms Harris did a better job than Mr Pence, according to in a CNN snap poll of registered voters, by a margin of 21 percent. FiveThirtyEight also found voters appreciated his performance and policies more.

“For the most part, Kamala Harris was the owner of this debate,” Melanye Price, a political scientist specializing in contemporary black politics, wrote in The Times. “Unlike Biden, she was able to keep her opponent from speaking and interrupting him.”

But Times columnist Ross Douthat maintains that all things considered, Mr. Pence came out the winner. “You have to factor in the degree of difficulty here: Pence’s task was to normalize Donald Trump’s presidency after his craziest week yet, and he gave a truly remarkable performance of normality (and, yes, often really cheeky), whose prosecutorial style Harris couldn’t shake her, ”he wrote.

But he also added that vice-presidential debates usually don’t matter. Times columnist Gail Collins agreed: “No one will be talking about this debate in two days. They will be lucky to have a 10 minute chat with serious political junkies over breakfast.

Mary from Michigan: “Last spring I had a business phone call with someone in Ohio that I didn’t know before. She mentioned that despite being a Republican, Trump’s rude behavior had made her doubt his support for her. Biden can win over people like her with a civilized demeanor that describes him as a leader someone would be proud to follow. I was sorry to hear his name called out in the debate which does not give the impression of a statesman one would want to follow.

Adeniyi from Nigeria: “It cannot be overstated that America is looking for a new direction, so it will be counterproductive for Joe Biden to continue to engage in a brawl of words or advertisements negative with Donald Trump. Or the American people won’t notice the difference.

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