Debates between the two American running mates, the nominee vice presidents, is normally a political afterthought. But that is also different in times of pandemic. Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris know all eyes are on.
Running mates are expected to defend their own lead candidate during the campaign and attack those of the opposing team. The vice-presidential debate is the main opportunity they have for this in terms of audience size.
Their own ambitions also count: (candidate) vice presidents often launch their own presidential campaign later on. The tall ages of Trump (74) and Biden (77) make this all the more relevant for Pence (61) and Harris (55), who are known to both prey on the Oval Office.
It was still a bit tense whether next night’s debate in Salt Lake City would continue. The coronavirus is haunting the White House, and Vice President Pence has been in close contact with people who were later diagnosed with the virus in recent weeks. Pence has repeatedly tested negative since it became known that Trump fell ill, but given the incubation period of COVID-19, that offers no guarantees.
Workers install plexiglass screens where the vice-presidential debate will take place. (Photo: ANP)
Haggling over Plexiglass screens
According to the vice president himself, extra precautions are unnecessary during the debate, because he would have only limited exposure to infected people and the two debaters will be nearly four meters apart. The organizers decided at the insistence of Biden’s campaign team that there will also be screens made of plexiglass. Team Trump does not see the point in this and initially opposed it, but agreed on Tuesday.
The discussion about the screens is illustrative: the pandemic will probably be the talking point. The US President and his Vice President have been diligently trying to divert attention during the campaign. That strategy, which has not been very successful with the electorate, is outdated with Trump’s own contamination. As the proverbial babble goes: the corona virus is the big pink elephant that you cannot possibly ignore.
Pence: defend corona policy and dismiss Democrats as the extreme left
The vice president heads the US government’s ‘corona task force’. He will likely have to answer for the way the White House has handled the pandemic. It has now claimed more than 210,000 lives in the US.
He may also receive questions about how Trump dealt with his own contamination. The president was released from the hospital on Monday, to the surprise of many medical experts, and now presents himself as living proof that the coronavirus is not to be feared.
The vice president has been Trump’s shadow in almost every respect for the past four years. He will have to navigate between maintaining that loyalty and showing his own political face – within the Republican Party there are several hijackers on the coast as possible future ‘next generation’ Trump, such as Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas and former UN. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
The Trump campaign states that Biden and Harris are puppets of the far left. The California senator, who is indeed significantly more left-wing than Biden, is portrayed as the real power behind the throne. Pence will undoubtedly try to convince floating voters of this next night.
Harris: Attack the White House – but not too hard
Like Pence, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris has a tightrope to walk. She has to criticize Trump’s corona policy, but harsh attacks on a president who is currently struggling with his own health can backfire.
Harris is a former prosecutor and known for being a fierce interrogator. During the debates surrounding the Democratic primaries, it turned out that she can be devastating, as when she saw Joe Biden attacked on his political past with regard to racism. But it also turned out that she is especially good at this if she can prepare such a rhetorical swipe in advance. When it came to spontaneous exchanges, her performances were not always convincing.
What may also play tricks on Harris is that female politicians are often judged more on their tone than male colleagues. Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke to Harris last week for her podcast and advised her, “Prepare for the insults, the attempts to make you small – you personally, you as a woman, who is about to become our next vice president. So I think the other side will try really hard to put you in a box. “
The vice-presidential debate starts at 3:00 a.m. Dutch time and lasts 90 minutes and is the only time that the running mates will face each other. It is not yet clear whether the two debates between Trump and Biden that are still scheduled for October 15-22, will continue.