Why Harris vs Pence could be 2020’s most significant debate

8 October 2020

8:22 PM

8 October 2020

8:22 PM

‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ That was how Vice Admiral James Stockdale began the 1992 televised vice-presidential debate. It’s now regarded as a famous gaffe, yet Stockdale’s questions reflect the way most viewers feel about ‘veep’ debates. Who are these people? Why am I watching? Four years ago, 37 million Americans tuned in to watch Mike Pence argue with Sen. Tim Kaine, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s respective running mates. Even the most ardent followers of American politics would struggle to remember a single phrase.

This year is different. Pence, the Vice President, vs Kamala Harris, the running mate of former vice president Joe Biden, could turn out to be the most consequential debate of 2020. After that awful shouting match last week between Trump and Biden, Americans will be grateful to have heard a little discussion — why not? — of government policies. They’ve had so little so far from the two grumpy grandfathers vying for the White House.

In Harris and Pence, we may well be seeing the future of American politics. In four years, or less, one of the two could be President. Pence is hardly the most vivacious character — he plays straight man to the outrageous Donald — but he is already strong favorite to be the Republican party’s next presidential nominee; the keeper of the Trumpist flame. Also, as you may have heard, Trump has Covid. There’s been a lot of speculation in recent days about a possible triggering of the 25th Amendment, which would enable the Vice President to take charge if the Commander-in-Chief becomes incapacitated. When Trump was in hospital, some feverish NeverTrumpers even urged Pence to make his move on grounds of ‘national security’. For now, however, Trump appears to be making a swift recovery — thank you, dexamethasone – and anyway Pence would never show any outward sign of turning on his master. His loyalty may be rewarded in time.

Harris may not need to be so patient. Biden is 77 — 78 by Inauguration Day — and everybody knows he’s fading mentally. Yes, he got through the debate last week without too many senior moments. Yet the real concern should be that his fumbling performance was heralded as a sort of triumph.

Dark rumors abound. Biden’s campaign keeps calling ‘lids’ — press-pool speak for the official end of a candidate’s day — straight after breakfast. ‘Biden 2020’ feels like a shadow play; nobody wants to admit that the protagonist isn’t all there. It isn’t just right-wing Fox News hosts speculating that, were Biden to win on 3 November, and polls strongly suggest he will, he will have to give way to Kamala within two years. Many Democrats are thinking the same. By the end of 2022, America could have its first woman president. If feminism can’t win at the ballot, why not smash the patriarchal glass ceiling using an old guy’s withered head? Even if Biden does stagger through his first term, Harris, who’s only 55, would be expected to cover many of his duties and take over for the election in 2024.

Harris seems to be preparing, ever so subtly, for inauguration. She just appeared on the cover of Elle magazine in a strapping pantsuit with a hand under her chin. ‘Kamala Harris is fueled by optimism,’ said a headline. Harris revealed that her favorite greeting is not ‘Pleased to meet you’ but: “I see you.” I see you as a complete human being. At this moment in time, it is so critically important in our country for all people to be seen in their full selves, in a way that gives them the dignity they deserve.’ Whatever you say, Madame Co-President.

Harris has mastered the art of turning therapeutic Hollywood blather into political flam. ‘What I hope and pray is that we can get to a point where, through what are undoubtedly difficult conversations, we confront the real history of America,’ she said in the Elle interview, speaking about racial justice. ‘Doing it in a way that is motivated by love, but also is fully honest.’

She can be aggressive, too. As a former public prosecutor, she enjoys tearing into other politicians. The most significant moment of her own presidential campaign came in another TV debate in June last year, when she challenged Biden over his dubious record on racial matters. Some people might have thought that a mistake, given that Biden went on to win the nomination. In the Democratic party, however, calling someone bigoted is a great way to get ahead.

Should we expect a softer Kamala from now on? Her staff have been briefing to expect a more Zen performance than Biden’s last week. That’s because Team Biden has found through surveys that, in this still sexist world, viewers don’t find belligerent women appealing. Senior campaign staff say, with a sorry head-shake, that Hillary Clinton could never have gotten away with calling Trump ‘a clown’ as Biden did.

Maybe the trouble is not women, tout corps, but the women who reach the top of the greasy Democratic pole. The trouble with Kamala, like Hillary, is that people don’t respond well to her. Harris’s presidential campaign had all the media hype a candidate could wish for. She bombed. Her polling was so bad she withdrew before the primary process began.

Democrats will cry misogyny or possibly racism if anybody says Kamala has an annoying voice. But the reason voters don’t seem to warm to Kamala is not necessarily because of her sex or her skin. It’s because she seems willing to say just about anything to get elected and she oozes an obnoxious West Coast sense of privilege. She’s tried to offset her earlier reputation as a zealous prosecutor of criminals with a slightly over-the-top enthusiasm for the Black Lives Matter protests. She even tweeted a link to a ‘bail fund’ to help release violent rioters from jail. Most voters find that off-putting.

Harris’s likability issue may be the reason she has kept a surprisingly low profile for a vice-presidential nominee, bar the odd glossy interview. Biden’s advisers may have figured out that the electorate isn’t crazy about this lady-in-waiting. Perhaps Team Biden-Harris are wary of spreading the impression that she has her eyes on a bigger prize. ‘Momala’, as Harris’s step-children call her, has been under wraps. After this week, that could all change. We’ll see her.

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