No matter which candidate is elected in 25 days, the next president will be the oldest person ever sworn in as the president of the United States. That fact, coupled with the reality that the sitting president is currently battling a deadly virus, put a brighter spotlight on the candidates during Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate.
Susan Page, the Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today, moderated what will likely be the most substantive debate this election cycle. Unlike the presidential debate on Sept. 29—where Trump interrupted his opponent and the moderator more than 70 times and Biden interrupted 22 times—Wednesday’s debate was relatively sedate. Vice President Mike Pence, however, did interrupt Sen. Kamala Harris twice as often, which led to some of her most talked about moments of the night where she firmly stated several times, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”
Though only one question was specifically framed through a racial justice lens, Harris did occasionally address how the Trump administration’s policies have and will affect marginalized communities. Both candidates, however, missed opportunities to address the ways in which many of the issues surrounding the election are disproportionately impacting Black and brown people at large. Here are a few places where they hit and missed the mark:
On the coronavirus
During the first segment of the debate—and arguably one of the biggest topics of the night—Harris came out swinging, calling the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic the “greatest failure of any presidential administration.” She used her opening statement to highlight the middle class, the number of people who have had to file for unemployment, the early-on struggle to acquire toilet paper, and how essential workers have been “treated like sacrificial workers.”
In his response, Pence didn’t waste time with the anti-Asian xenophobic attacks as he deflected blame and defended the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response.
“Before there were more than five cases in the United States, all people who had returned from China, President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done, and that was that he suspended all travel from China—the second-largest economy in the world,” Pence said. He then said Biden called the travel restrictions “xenophobic”—a partially true statement, but in reality Biden called the president’s handling of the pandemic xenophobic, not the travel restrictions specifically.
Later, and less than an hour into the debate, Pence continued with the xenophobic rhetoric, saying “China is to blame for the coronavirus,” and “President Trump is not happy about it.”
Harris, in her response, missed the opportunity to call out Pence’s comments as being racist and divisive or commenting on how it can stoke anti-Asian racism, which has already been heightened due to the coronavirus. Also, neither candidate acknowledged how Black and brown people are being disproportionately impacted by the virus or what they plan to do to address the disparity.
This was a segment of the debate that caused some frustration among environmental activists. Pence, who advocated for fracking by saying it added thousands of new jobs, focused primarily on attacking the Biden campaign for supporting the Green New Deal and promising to ban fracking—both of which are misleading claims that have been key talking points for Republicans whenever answering any question related to climate change.
“We all know that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact,” Harris responded, while defending Biden’s climate plan. Harris’ comments were immediately slammed on Twitter, even by some members of her own party. During the debate, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Fracking is bad, actually.”
Since then, a video from the 2019 presidential primaries has resurfaced, where she said, “There is no question I’m in favor of banning fracking.” The video has been widely shared, including by the president himself, causing some confusion about her stance on the issue.
The toxic impact of fracking on communities—especially Indigenous communities—is extreme, but it wasn’t the focus of the discussion. In fact, it wasn’t mentioned once. The environmental discussion during the debate showed that the fight to end fracking and the need to include Indigenous communities in that fight will likely continue regardless of which president is sworn in come Jan. 20.
On Breonna Taylor
After briefly describing the events that led up to Breonna Taylor’s death, Page asked both candidates one short, direct question: “In the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?”
Harris answered this question directly, saying “I don’t believe so,” while adding that she has had a conversation with Taylor’s mother, Tameka Palmer, and other members of Taylor’s family. Harris also used her time in the segment to mention George Floyd and the eight minutes and 46 seconds he was pinned under a police officer’s knee before dying, saying he was “tortured and killed.” She closed out her time by talking about the peaceful protests held around the country over recent months, and her involvement in them.
“I believe strongly that first of all we are never going to condone violence, but we always must fight to achieve our ideals.”
She closed out her time by revealing Biden’s plans to decriminalize marijuana and implement police reforms, such as a national registry for police officers who break the law.
“Bad cops are bad for good cops,” she said. Though that statement brought some cheers and relief to many Biden supporters on Twitter, it didn’t sit well with some Black Lives Matter supporters and police abolitionists, who have repeatedly said that those branded “good cops” are complicit in the continued violence inflicted on Black and brown communities.
When it was Pence’s turn to comment, the vice president didn’t directly answer the question, instead expressing condolences for the family before quickly pivoting to the “riots and looters” at racial justice protests, invoking racist stereotypes about violence and Black people.
“Our heart breaks for the loss of any innocent American life,” he said, seemingly continuing with the “All Lives Matter” rhetoric by many people on the right.
“I trust our justice system, a grand jury that refused the evidence,” Pence said. “And it really is remarkable that as a former prosecutor, you would assume that an empanelled grand jury looking at all the evidence got it wrong.”
In Taylor’s case, however, there is reason to doubt where the grand jury did in fact review all the evidence available, since questions have been raised about whether certain information was deliberately withheld.
Pence added that there is “no excuse” for what happened to George Floyd, but also that there is no excuse for any violence during protests.
On “packing the court”
Pence pressed Harris about whether a Biden administration would “pack the court,” which would mean adding more justices to the Supreme Court to give liberal justices an advantage over conservatives. Harris declined to answer the question, instead focusing on the impact Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation would have on those seeking an abortion, low-income people, and those who rely on Obamacare. She then pivoted to call out the Trump administration for its lack of representation when appointing judges.
“Let’s talk about packing the court,” Harris said. “Of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the Court of Appeals, not one is Black. You want to talk about packing a court? Let’s have that discussion.”
“I want the record to reflect she never answered the question,” Pence responded.
Biden said in July 2019 he would not be open to expanding the Supreme Court “because we’ll live to rue that day,” but he and Harris have not provided a firm stance since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite calls from many progressives to do so.
On Harris’ record
Harris’ record as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general followed her throughout her presidential bid, so it was no surprise that Pence challenged her on it during Wednesday’s debate.
“When you left office, African Americans were nine times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics,” Pence said, adding that as attorney general she increased the disproportionate number of Black people put behind bars. The irony of Pence’s jab—which came from a member of an administration that prides itself for being “tough on crime”—was glaring.
Harris didn’t specifically respond to Pence’s claims about her record, and instead pivoted to some of the more positive aspects of her work as California attorney general, such as requiring body cameras for agents of the state Department of Justice, establishing a reentry program for formerly incarcerated people, and implicit bias training.
Wednesday night was a historic event as Harris took the debate stage as the first Black and Indian vice presidential candidate. But with heightened racial tensions around the country, racial inequality could have been a much bigger discussion. At the very least, there were opportunities to acknowledge the ways in which the Trump administration’s actions and inactions have directly harmed people of color.
There were no questions by the moderator related to Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy during the first presidential debate, where he called on white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by.” The vice presidential debate could have been an opportunity for Pence to condemn white supremacy, be vocal about his own racial justice stance, or even clarify the president’s comments. Instead, Trump’s comments went unmentioned, and Pence’s own comments reflected well-worn racist dog whistles about Black protesters and anti-Chinese xenophobia.
There was also no discussion about immigration—which was arguably a major factor in Trump’s 2016 victory—or the Trump administration’s incendiary policies that have put the health, lives, and livelihoods of documented and undocumented people at risk. Pence didn’t have to defend Trump’s family separation policy or explain to Trump base why the America-Mexico border hasn’t yet been built, and Harris didn’t get the opportunity to present the Biden administration’s immigration plan.
Pence also blatantly disregarded the previously agreed upon time restrictions, talking over Harris on several occasions. Page also made a minimal effort to prevent the interruptions from happening, failing to jump in during a moment in the debate where Pence completely took over Harris’ allotted speaking time. Harris, however, had to tread a razor-thin line both as a woman and a person of color, trying to come across as assertive and approachable without being perceived as the “angry Black woman” stereotype.
The vice presidential debate didn’t offer any shocking moments, and the discussion likely didn’t sway voters who were already familiar with Pence and Harris’ stances on key issues. It did, however, illuminate where each candidate ranks racial equity and equality on their list of priorities.