More arguments and less testosterone: the vice-presidential debate

After the hyper-macho testosterone-charged presidential debate last week, the debate between the vice-presidential candidates, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, was expected to be more like a traditional, more policy-centered candidate debate. It delivered. In fact, it was borderline boring to the point that a fly that spent about two minutes on Pence’s forehead caused a Twitter uproar.

The issue that permeates and conditions absolutely everything in our governments and our lives right now, the coronavirus, took center stage. That, along with Trump and to a lesser extent, the economy and Biden received the most attention. This wasn’t surprising given Trump’s recent hospitalization but refusal to get a much-needed stimulus bill passed. The virus was the topic of the day-before spat over debate logistics: both campaigns had agreed to a protective plexiglass screen between the candidates then suddenly team Trump wasn’t having it.

Since Trump-world’s stance is that the coronavirus is nothing, despite the fact that some 23 people in his orbit have become infected, they continue to flout science and assert that masks aren’t necessary. They finally did agree to the plexiglass, but this just further set up Pence to have to go in a defend this sort of behavior. It doesn’t help that he’s led the White House task force on the coronavirus. It also doesn’t help that per CDC guidelines, Pence should be in quarantine. Indeed, he walked into this debate with one big target on his back.

And Harris took aim right from the start, saying that “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” Pence, of course defended the administration’s response saying that what they did in the early days saved lives and chided Harris to “stop playing politics with people’s lives.” This is tough to square with the repeated denials of science, skirmishes with doctors and the 210,000 people dead. Harris concluded that “Frankly the administration has forfeited their right to reelection.”

With the U.S. so polarized, the debates offer us a side-by-side glimpse at the separate universes that each party and their supporters live in. Beyond truth and lives, there is no overlap between the top three issues between Biden and Trump supporters. Data from Pew Research shows that Biden supporters are most concerned about healthcare, the coronavirus outbreak and race and ethnic inequality. On the other hand, Trump supporters are more worried about the economy, violent crime and supreme court appointments. This helps explain why Pence can repeat Trump’s falsehoods on the handling of the pandemic and his supporters just don’t care. At least the ones who don’t have first-hand experience with this deadly virus themselves.

At the same time, the women outnumbered the men two to one if we count the debate’s moderator, USA Today’s Susan Page. This didn’t make it any less contentious, but without quite as much braggadocio, the debate was eminently more watchable — personally, I was thankful to not have a raging headache by the end of it. That said, women offer a change up in debate style that people tend to love or hate. I found that many of the men in my social media feeds, even ones who are Democrats, found the moderating to be weak or Harris to be missing opportunities to fact check Pence. Others found her disrespectful. Yet, women thought Harris was strong and solid and felt that Pence was interrupting with an air of white male privilege. Yet an NBC analysis showed that even if Pence went further, both did their share of attacks and interrupting. Harris attacked 84 times to Pence’s 93, and she interrupted 9 times to his 16.

Does any of this matter? It is highly unlikely that this debate will move the polls in either direction. Further, about 5.5 million people have already voted and undecided voters are become extinct: a recent CBS polls shows only 3% of voters are unsure. VP debates are most interesting in that they can serve a preview of future presidential ones and both Harris, whose 55, and Pence, who’s 61, have their eyes on the presidency.

This made the debate perhaps more perilous for Pence because it’s hard to tell how much love will remain for Trumpism past Trump, whether or not he gets four more years. Remember, despite his two terms, George W. Bush remains a persona non grata among Republicans. That said, Trump dogma has more credibility when it comes out of the more somber and serious Pence’s mouth. On the other hand, should Biden lose, Harris will continue in the Senate and benefit from bigger national name recognition when she most likely runs again in 2024.

This op-ed was publish in Spanish in El Español.

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