The stark differences between pre-Trump and Trumpian politics were on full display
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met in a debate on September 29, as both candidates strove to prove to the public that they are the better choice to lead the country. Eight days later, their respective running mates, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris of California, participated in their own debate. The two events could not have differed more in tone or substance.
Rather than a substantive debate on the issues, what occurred between Trump and Biden was an event described by CNN’s Jake Tapper as “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck,” while Matthew Walther of The Week declared it the “worst presidential debate of all time.” Neither conservatives nor liberals spared their criticism of the event, though many placed the majority of the blame on Trump’s poor behavior. Jonah Goldberg, a conservative writer, argued in his syndicated column that for all of Trump’s bluster, he failed to land a hit on his opponent, and only embarrassed himself in the eyes of moderate voters, while the left-leaning New York Times editorial board labeled Trump’s performance as “a national disgrace.”
The international reaction was also one of sustained criticism, with the UK’s Times describing it not as a debate but rather “an ill-tempered and at times incomprehensible squabble between two angry septuagenarians who palpably loathe each other.” Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-owned media outlet Global Times wrote on Twitter that such “chaos at the top of US politics reflects division, anxiety of US society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the US political system.”
Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News repeatedly failed to maintain order, with both candidates frequently speaking out of their allotted time, often over the words of their opponent. This lack of structure led to frustrations on the part of both candidates. In a particularly viral moment, an exasperated Biden, as Trump attempted to speak over him and Wallace, said, “Will you shut up, man?”
The debate dealt primarily with the hot-button topics of the campaign, such as Trump’s recent nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat on the Supreme Court recently vacated due to the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as recent reports that Trump only paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017. Trump deflected the question of his tax returns, saying that he paid “millions of dollars” in taxes when pressed on the issue by Wallace. In turn, Trump attempted to nail down Biden on the latter’s refusal to say whether his administration would “pack the court,” that is, increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court, in response to a Barrett confirmation. Other topics included climate change and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis; Trump attempted to link Biden’s climate plan to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” while Biden placed the blame for the over 200,000 deaths from coronavirus in the United States largely on Trump. However, these claims were largely ignored in the immediate reaction to the debate due to the chaos that defined the evening in Cleveland.
In contrast, the vice-presidential debate did not devolve into a shouting match like the one attended by their running mates. Vice President Pence and Senator Harris saved their ire for debate moderator, USA Today bureau chief Susan Page. Pence spoke over his allotted time on almost every response he gave, despite Page’s repeated admonishments of “Thank you, Mr. Vice President”, a model Harris would emulate later on in the debate.
Despite going over their time limits, the debate was certainly low-key and policy-focused in comparison to the top-of-the-ticket contest. Pence and Harris, seated at desks and separated by plexiglass dividers due to COVID-19 concerns, defended their running mates and their own records.
The general response to the vice-presidential debate was much more muted and even positive in some respects. The Bloomberg News editorial board said it provided “a welcome relief” compared to the politics of the past four years as characterized by the Trump-Biden debate.
A wide range of policies was discussed, from energy policy to criminal justice issues. Pence repeatedly tried to make the claim that Biden planned to ban the practice of hydraulic fracking, while Harris denied such a plan. According to Bloomberg News, Harris explicitly supported banning fracking during her presidential campaign, while Biden has not said so explicitly, making the ticket’s overall position murky. Pence also attacked Harris’ record as a prosecutor (specifically, racial disparities in drug prosecutions during her tenure as the San Francisco District Attorney) while touting his and Trump’s criminal justice reform bill that was passed in 2018.
Harris, much like Biden, struck back by attacking the administration’s coronavirus response, which public polls have shown a majority of Americans still disapprove of. The California senator also cast doubt on Trump’s rapid push for a COVID-19 vaccine, saying that “If the public health professionals…tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it,” but “if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it,” to which Pence responded that she was undermining public trust in the vaccine program.
A lighter moment occurred when a stray fly landed atop Pence’s head and remained there for a few minutes, unbeknownst to the Vice President but beknownst to the over 57 million viewers of the debate as well as the many Twitter users who created memes about the fly. The late-night comedy show hosts also “buzzed” about the fly’s presence at the debate as well during their coverage.
According to Newsweek, while the presidential debate was something they did not enjoy watching, it ultimately did not have much effect on who a focus group of swing-state voters were planning to support. Indeed, analysts before the debate predicted such an outcome, but Biden’s support has jumped in the polls conducted in the week following the debate. It remains to be seen if the vice-presidential debate will have any discernible effect on people’s votes. With the election only weeks away, that question may be answered sooner than many expect.
Luke Koenigsknecht is a sophomore from Grand Rapids, Michigan studying electrical engineering. In his spare time, he enjoys reading as well as playing games or solving puzzles. He also fancies himself an amateur baker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.