2020 Election Op-Eds Opinion

Fitzgerald: With aging presidential candidates, the VP debate is important

Nora Fitzgerald

Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris met in Utah last night for the first and only vice presidential debate of 2020, moderated by Susan Page from USA Today.

Pundits and politicians everywhere have stressed the importance of having a strong running mate in this election. Donald Trump, 74, and Joe Biden, 77, are two of the oldest men to run for the office of President of the United States. With rising concerns about each candidate’s health, there is extra pressure for Pence and Harris to perform well in this debate.

It is also worth noting that last night’s debate made Kamala Harris the first black and South Asian woman to debate in a general presidential election.

With plexiglass barriers between candidates and a socially-distant audience, it is clear that the pandemic is a major concern in this debate. Just 48 hours after President Trump returned home from Walter Reed Hospital, the COVID-19 response was the first topic of discussion. 

Kamala Harris stated that the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic was the “greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” She followed up by explaining that a Biden-Harris administration would organize a national strategy to ensure contact tracing, testing, and the administration of the vaccine for all Americans. 

Pence insisted that Trump has always put the health of Americans first, and promised tens of millions of vaccines by the end of the year. The vice president was also asked about the spread of the virus within the Trump administration. Pence evaded a direct answer, something both parties did during the course of the debate.

Pence and Harris were then asked to talk about the economic fallout from the pandemic. Pence supported Trump’s idea of a V-shaped recovery, and argued that a Biden-Harris administration would tax the working class and “bury” our economy. Harris, on the other hand, admitted that the economy is failing, and brought up Biden’s economic plan if elected.

“Biden will not tax anyone who makes less than $400,000 a year,” Harris repeated throughout the debate. The senator promised that their administration would invest in infrastructure, research, and education, in order to boost the economy. 

On the topic of climate change, the two vice presidential candidates showed very different approaches. 

Pence, when asked if climate change poses an existential threat to humans on Earth, said, “The climate is changing. We will follow the science.” He added that our air and land is cleaner than ever, and showed little concern for the natural disasters affecting so many of our cities.

Harris raised numerous concerns about the Trump administration’s history of rejecting science, both in relation to climate and to the pandemic. However, when directly asked if the Biden-Harris ticket supports the Green New Deal, a deal that Harris co-sponsored, the senator avoided a clear answer.

Page prompted the candidates to talk about our country’s complicated relationship with China, and how that relates to foreign policy. Pence reiterated what President Trump has been saying for months: China is responsible for the virus, and he is not happy about it. Pence also accused Biden of being a “cheerleader” for China in one of the Trump administration’s many attempts to paint Biden as a radical communist.

Kamala Harris stated that we have to keep our friends “in check” and trust each other. She then criticized Trump’s relationship with Putin, saying that he “embraces dictatorship.”

On the issue of the Supreme Court, the vice president maintained the position that the Trump administration has the right to nominate the next Supreme Court justice before the election. Pence praised the record of Amy Coney Barrett and raised concerns that she would be attacked for her Christian faith. 

Harris countered his statement by explaining that even Abraham Lincoln, when a Supreme Court seat opened up 27 days before the election, supported the right of the people to elect the next president before filling the seat. When asked if her and former vice president Joe Biden would commit to packing the Supreme Court, Harris did not give a clear answer. 

Susan Page began the next segment of the debate by bringing up the tragic death of Breonna Taylor, and asked the candidates if they believed her family received justice.

Harris expressed her condolences for the family and firmly stated that justice was not served. The senator has been criticized for her record as District Attorney of California, and many people on the left are skeptical of her ability to create meaningful change in this area. She called for reform in the criminal justice system, and made several promises, including the abolition of the private prison system and the decriminalization of marijuana. 

Pence made a lame attempt to empathize with Taylor’s family before conveying his trust in the criminal justice system. He defended the actions of the men and women serving in law enforcement, and condemned the rioting and looting that ensued after the rise of Black Lives Matter protests this summer. With regards to criminal justice reform, the Trump administration has no plans to make any significant changes.

Finally, Susan Page asked if the candidates would demonstrate a peaceful transfer of power in the event that Biden is elected. Pence proudly stated that he believes he and Trump will win the election. Despite this confidence, the vice president expressed concern over the validity of mail-in voting.

Senator Harris articulated her pride in the coalition she and Joe Biden built around their campaign, and encouraged the American people to make a plan to vote. She adds, “We believe in the American people; we believe in democracy.”

The Commission for Presidential Debates just announced that the next debate will be held virtually. Originally, this town-hall style debate was taking place in Miami, FL. It is unclear if this debate will continue as scheduled because Trump has asserted that he will not “waste his time” debating virtually. 

Photo: BBC News

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