The derailed train gets back on track: Analyzing the vice presidential debate

Graphic by Julia Sanbe.
Graphic by Julia Sanbe.
Graphic by Julia Sanbe.

With last week’s presidential debate, we saw President Donald Trump act like Trump. The president’s supporters watched their brazen fighter— someone who doesn’t play by established political conventions and chomps at the bit to critique ineffective and dishonest career politicians. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s supporters, contrastingly, watched their candidate gradually alienate his own base while sucker-punching the progressive left and disavowing growing movements within his own Democratic Party to back the Green New Deal and efforts to defund the police. Biden actively restored dignity to our political discourse, reassembling the heart and soul of our nation by calling our sitting president a “clown,” and demanding that he “shut up.” We saw Biden abandon the core themes of his campaign as he sadly tried to emulate the president’s often-critiqued style.

Similarly, during Democratic Senator Kamala Harris’ performance last night, it became clear that the Biden general election strategy is an organized effort to woo Republican voters who are apprehensive towards Trump. Here’s a word of advice to the Biden campaign: Voters never choose the inauthentic option when they can pick the real deal. Last week’s debate was devoid of clarity or substance and alienated independent and undecided voters, and neither candidate was able to claim a true win.

Biden exceeded my expectations; however, my expectations were extraordinarily low. Even though neither of them won the debate, I think there was still a benefit that can be given to one of the candidates. If independent voters continue to become less interested in the election, it becomes a base election where it is simply a size contest of who has a larger electoral base. Whereas Biden’s base is smaller and substantially less enthused, the president’s base is much larger, more enthusiastic and easier to mobilize. If independents stay home, and this election is largely decided by political bases, Trump will likely be re-elected. Reviewing this evening’s debate is much less enticing than last week’s train wreck. After all, few people are eager to read about the plane that lands safely. Nonetheless, I present to you what you’ve all been waiting for: a right-of-center take on this unpredictable rollercoaster of an election season as we hurl towards the finish line together.

This week, we saw the safe-choice nominees for both parties. For the Democrats, Harris is in many ways a political chameleon; she’s new enough to the national stage that she doesn’t have a long tenure of Senate votes which can be scrutinized to the same extent that Biden’s past has been. Yes, Harris has baggage from her time as California attorney general, but all of Biden’s veep finalists had baggage. Democrats hope to garner some political excitement from her relative novelty.

For the Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence represents a safe choice, too. The sitting vice president is a child of America’s agricultural heartland, with a record as governor of Indiana that enthuses the religious right. Pence complements the President’s political appeal. Whereas President Trump focuses on economic issues that resonate most strongly with right-of-center Democrats and working-class independent voters in the electoral vote-rich rustbelt, Pence energizes his fellow evangelicals and the GOP’s socially conservative base.

The evening’s events fell under newly intensified scrutiny, with Trump testing positive for coronavirus last week, and Biden nearing 80 and suffering from a noticeably deteriorating mental state. Whoever wins, the man being inaugurated this January will be our oldest president in American history. This brings increased importance to the candidates for vice president.

From the starting line of the debate, Harris was eager to play Monday morning quarterback on the coronavirus pandemic. She was giddy to grill Pence, the coronavirus task force leader. While she refused to directly answer the question about if their potential administration would implement a mask mandate or work to keep people stationary in places of outbreaks, she continuously critiqued the Trump administration without offering a clear contrast of ideas. The vice president later accused her of plagiarism, suggesting that their goals of increasing testing, contact tracing and PPE were already priorities of the current administration. Notably, Biden opposed Trump’s decision earlier this year to shut down travel from hotspots where the virus was prevalent; he tweeted in response, “Stop the xenophobic fear-mongering.”

She labeled the coronavirus as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in history.” I’m curious if the senator is knowledgeable of Jackson’s 1830s Trail of Tears, Filmore’s 1850s Fugitive Slave Act, FDR’s 1930s Japanese Internment or Carter’s 1980s Iran Hostage Crisis; but I digress.

It was disappointing to see Harris stoke fear and undermine confidence in our public health institutions by delegitimizing a potential coronavirus vaccine, declaring, “If Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.” With five companies in stage three clinical trials, I agree with the vice president that it is “unconscionable” to play “politics with peoples’ lives.”

Another important issue— the economy— was raised. Let’s have a little review of tax policy, shall we? Biden intends to repeal the Trump-era tax cuts provided by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which increased the household income for the average family of four by $4,000. Biden’s reversal of this policy will create $4 trillion in tax hikes, and while Harris insists that Biden won’t raise taxes on anyone making under $400,000, the facts don’t line up. Trump’s tax cuts benefited the paychecks of the vast majority of Americans, not just those at the top; repealing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would do much more harm than simply raising the tax burden of the very wealthy.

The candidates also clashed on environmental issues. The candidates argued over whether Biden has contradicted himself on policies such as those on fracking. The vice president alleged that his predecessor has made comments in the past on these policies, and he is correct. Biden has even suggested jailing fossil fuel companies’ executives. Interestingly, both Harris and Biden have consistently flip-flopped on the Green New Deal, but one thing is certain: If their ticket wins, we will see more taxes and more job-killing regulations, guaranteed.

The best quip of the night came from the vice president rebutting, “Senator Harris, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” He criticized that she was one of only 10 senators to vote against the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement trade deal because it didn’t do enough to promote her climate agenda. Sadly, with Harris, American workers and domestic industries take a back seat. She is also fear mongering, suggesting Trump and Pence are “coming for you” if you have a pre-existing condition. This is wrong, the president has consistently stated that he supports protections for pre-existing conditions.

Harris suggested that withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal made the United States less safe. However, the agreement was without substance or enforcement mechanisms to begin with. Further, the sunset clause meant that Iran could still develop a nuclear weapon and enrich uranium, meaning the bargain did nothing unless you count the plane full of cash returning frozen Iranian assets to the financial coffers of the state-sponsor of terror as something.

The issue of abortion was raised, and we were once again reminded that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are running on the most pro-abortion platform in American campaign history, advocating for taxpayer funding of abortion. In contrast, the current administration has consistently fought to curtail abortion and advocated for their pro-life agenda, particularly with their nominations to the federal judiciary. Sadly, Harris, yet again, declined to directly answer whether or not they would “pack the courts” by raising the number of justices on the Supreme Court. It didn’t work for FDR when he wanted to jam through the unconstitutional components of his Depression-era New Deal, but hey, try it now, what can go wrong?

In the closing minutes of the debate, race relations and criminal justice were discussed. In the 1990s, a senator cracked jokes about lynching in the well of the Senate while arguing his support for a crime bill which institutionalized mass-incarceration in America as we know it today. Who was the senator who declared that the bill did “everything but hang people for jaywalking,” you might ask? Biden. While both Harris and Pence offered heartfelt words of sympathy and support to the families who have been hurt by the tragic deaths this year, Harris refused to condemn violent looters and rioters, and the vice president articulated that he and the president would continue to stand with our men and women in uniform serving our communities.

Both Harris and Pence present an embodiment of their party; however, it’s notable that Harris does not enjoy a similar base of support that is as obvious as Pence’s, likely because of her splotchy record on criminal justice issues as California’s top prosecutor during her time. She has demonstrated that she is no friend to historically marginalized communities, given her eagerness to pursue petty drug offenses and exploit inherent biases in our criminal justice system. She doesn’t enjoy political support from communities of color to the same extent that former President Barack Obama did. Harris was put on the ticket to make white liberals feel good while voting for a man with a backwards history of repeated follies with racial justice— a man who implemented the racially flawed institutions they and others are now so actively fighting to dismantle.

Clearly, Pence won this debate.

Randy Fitzgerald is a senior majoring in history, economics, political science and international studies.