On Wednesday, Vice presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence will take the stage in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the vice presidential debate. While V.P. debates don’t typically receive the same coverage during elections as their superiors, the hospitalization of President Trump after his COVID-19 diagnosis, as well as a presidential debate that left much to be desired in terms of concrete policy ideas, is bringing the vice presidential candidates to the forefront like never before.
The contrast between Harris, the first black woman ever nominated on a major party ticket, and Pence, a conservative white male, exemplifies stark ideological differences present in the American political environment. While Trump and Biden interrupted each other with broad political rhetoric and personal jabs, Pence and Harris will play important roles in swaying certain constituencies within each party, and represent likely successors for whichever presidential candidate wins the election. Thus, Wednesday’s debate has turned out to be a crucial moment for the 2020 election.
Mike Pence, the current V.P under President Trump, has long served as a stable voice in the dynamism of Trump’s political narratives. While Trump’s political message can change from day to day, Pence has mastered the skill of consistently conveying his administration’s views without stepping into Trump’s spotlight.
While Trump can comfortably count on support from the far right, Pence’s ostensible stability and moderation appeals to less radical conservatives, who may identify more with Trumpian policy but aren’t sold on his more extreme rhetoric. Pence’s ability to sway this demographic while unerringly following Trump’s lead is an important skill for a campaign currently struggling to hold centrist Republicans. Additionally, in light of Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis and mixed reports on his condition, Pence’s role as a potential leader for the Republican Party has been elevated to a central talking point sure to be addressed in the debate.
Pence has held strong to the stances he campaigned on in 2016, most notably in his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and police reform. More recently, Pence was given control of the COVID-19 task force in the early days of the pandemic, and has since focused his efforts at mitigating damage to the US economy in light of the recession caused by the virus. As a result, Pence has been adamant about the importance of businesses remaining open and downplaying the threat posed by the virus. Pence’s speech at the Republican National Convention focused on attacking Biden, whom he referred to as “a Trojan horse for the radical left” and “a cheerleader for Communist China”, as well as praising Trump’s presidency, claiming “President Trump set this nation on a path to opportunity and freedom from the very first day of this administration. But Joe Biden would set America on a path to socialism and decline.”
On the other side of the aisle is Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate. Born in Oakland, California to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, she is the first woman of color to ever run on a major party ticket. While Harris was one of Biden’s fiercest critics during the Democratic Primary where she ran against him, her selection as the V.P. nominee represents an effort by Biden to prove his loyalty to progressives and marginalized communities in spite of skepticism over his more moderate position on the political spectrum. Before becoming a senator, Harris served as district attorney for San Francisco and later was appointed attorney general of California. During her career as a senator, Harris pushed for tax and healthcare reform, providing support and paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and banning assault weapons. In recent years, Harris’ sharp questioning of Brett Kavanaugh and Bill Barr raised her profile even before she began her campaign in the primaries. The prosecutorial manner in which she handled these hearings are indicative of her history in law enforcement and make her a formidable opponent to Pence, especially in the debate setting. Where Pence appeals to moderate Republicans, Harris is especially important in gaining the support of young, progressive liberals and people of color who want proportionate representation in the White House. Her aggressive criticism of Biden during the primaries demonstrates a willingness to hold Biden accountable to his increasingly liberal policy platform, something former Bernie and Warren supporters were looking for in the Biden administration.
While Pence and Harris clash on most of their political perspectives, there are a few especially contentious topics expected to appear in the upcoming debate. First and most relevant is Trump and Pence’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Their continued assertions of a “recovering nation”, despite 210,000 American deaths and an outbreak within the White House, are an easy target for Harris and Biden, as was evidenced by Biden’s sharp comments on the subject in last week’s presidential debate. This topic is crucial to both campaigns – recent polling indicates that controlling the virus is the single most important issue for voters, and the current American economic crisis and rapid infection rates seem to contradict Trump and Pence’s optimism.
Another major contrast between the two V.P. candidates is their stances on the issue of systemic racism and police brutality in the US. While Harris has received criticism from her own party for her stance on non-violent crime and issues of police accountability during her time as attorney general, she has since made it clear she supports police reform, saying in a New York Times interview that “it is status-quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong.” This stands in stark contrast to Pence’s message during the period of civil unrest caused by racial injustice in the U.S., which has largely focused on labeling Black Lives Matter protesters as “looters” and advocating for the restoration of order by police and federal agents. In his most recent RNC speech, Pence said, “we will stand with those who stand on the Thin Blue Line, and we’re not going to defund the police — not now, not ever.” Pence’s stance on this issue may be more diplomatic after Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comment last week calling a militant neo-fascist group – the “Proud Boys”– to action.
Pence’s history of restricting women’s health organizations, abortion services, and LGBTQ rights may also find its way into the debate against Harris. As a woman of color, she can speak from the perspective of someone disproportionately affected by these policies and thus poses a real challenge for the incumbent’s androcentric, conservative viewpoint.
In general, Pence’s strategy for this debate will be to mitigate the damage done by Trump’s performance last week, and to better articulate Trumpian narratives on equating policies like universal healthcare and college education to socialism, echoing previous statements he made after Harris was nominated. “As you all know, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the Radical Left. So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine, and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Senator Harris.”
While this rhetoric is undeniably effective in inspiring Trump supporters, many believe that Harris’ record as an attorney will make her hard to beat in this debate, where more ambiguous political constituencies might be swayed. Whatever the outcome, what is certain is that events of the last week have placed the V.P. debate front and center like never before.
For Times Media Mexico
Kieran Hadley in Salt Lake City
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