For those who watched Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, few minds were likely changed by either candidate. For those who were already supporting the president, the vice president came across as steely and determined. And Sen. Harris was petulant and defensive.
Joe Biden voters saw Harris as presidential, balanced, prepared and smart. Pence came across as wooden, oily and even mechanical. Predictably, the news stations reflected political leanings. CNN declared Harris the winner by a whopping 60-40; Fox claimed a Pence knockout. Reality is in between.
The most significant takeaways from the debate were largely missed. First, and so obvious almost to be trivialized, was why the debate was taking place in person and in Salt Lake City when both candidates live and work in Washington. With the pandemic raging, travel is by no means 100% safe. The vice president, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, was exposed to the virus and should have been isolating.
Next week’s presidential debate poses even greater risks. President Donald Trump is and was infected by the coronavirus. He should be self-isolating and is not. Given the ambiguities and contradictions in his medical condition as presented by his physicians and the White House propensity for avoiding full disclosure and often the truth, if he does test “negative,” how can that be verified and is it worth the risk if the test is faulty?
Colleagues of mine from abroad were shocked that the health and safety of the candidates was regarded so cavalierly. Suppose one or more of the candidates contracted the virus. Or suppose the president is reinfected. Regardless of party affiliation, the election could be thrown into complete chaos. Hopefully, all will remain well. Yet, as is too well known, hope is never a strategy.
Second, when pressed about “packing” the Supreme Court if elected, Harris threw the punch of the night. Yet it was entirely lost for reasons that beg answers. Harris retorted that the real packing of the court was done by the president. While she cited the number 50, in fact, of the 53 judges proposed by the Trump administration and confirmed by the Senate for the Court of Appeals, the penultimate judicial body, none were Black. She could also have noted about four-fifths were White men and most came from private practice.
Those are stunning statistics even to Trump supporters and certainly to the few remaining undecided voters. However, that fact simply evaporated into the ether.
Pence indeed had a political nuclear weapon he failed to deliver on foreign policy. Instead of dredging up talking points about NATO spending, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which gained us nothing in return except for honoring a campaign commitment that was meaningless, and wrongly claiming that walking away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran made us safer, the vice president had an unarguable winner.
The Trump administration had presided over a remarkable agreement in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Israel recognized the other, the first breakthrough in 40 years. Why the vice president failed to exercise this clearcut success was remarkable. But he did.
Regardless of party loyalties, that both candidates ducked the tough questions was largely criticized or resented by many viewers. Pence completely abandoned the field when asked what his home state of Indiana would do about women’s reproductive rights if Roe vs. Wade were declared unconstitutional and, as noted, Harris evaded the court-packing question even though she had a powerful rejoinder.
The most significant question that was also avoided concerned transition of power after the election and, most importantly, if the president were to become incapacitated had either candidate discussed this possibility with their running mate. A simple “yes” or “no” would have sufficed. But both Pence and Harris refused to address that most critical issue as, no matter who wins, the next president will be the oldest in American history to take office. And one has COVID-19.
Yes, this was a far more civilized and traditional debate than last week’s fiasco. That alone was a benefit. But the risks of in-person debates in the midst of a pandemic, the failure of perhaps the most stunning arguments to be absorbed or raised and evasion of need-to-know questions challenges the relevance of these events. The most concerning takeaway is how far this country has moved in the wrong direction since the first presidential debates in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
And guess what? The third and final debate was virtual with Kennedy in New York and Nixon in Los Angeles.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book “The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age.”