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VP Debate: One Fly and Two Candidates of the Bourgeois State

At the vice presidential debate, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence fought about everything from the coronavirus response to swine flu to fracking. However, when you look past their rhetorical disagreements and Pence’s near-constant flaunting of the rules, the candidates actually have a lot more in common than they’d have you think.

Ezra Brain

October 8, 2020
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Kamala Harris and Mike Pence pictured sitting at their debate desks with short plexiglass barriers in between them

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Mike Pence and Kamala Harris entered the vice presidential debate with quite different tasks. For Pence, he needed to stop the bleeding in the Trump-Pence campaign. Over the past eight days, Trump has had a controversial debate performance (to say the least), tested positive for the coronavirus, went on an erratic tweet storm while he was hospitalized, immediately took off his mask upon his return to the White House, and then announced that he intended to withhold coronavirus aid until he was re-elected, sending the stock market plummeting. 

Pence needed to continue to play the role that he has always played as a member of the ticket: the stabilizer. Pence’s job is to make Trump seem appealing to the traditional Republican voter and counterbalance Trump’s erratic behavior. This function became even more important after recent events. Pence needed to seem calm and in-control and appeal to the sector of Republican voters who are increasingly considering voting for Biden, or perhaps even not voting at all. Indeed, as Harris pointed out in the debate, many former Republican officials have lined up behind Biden.

Harris, for her part, needed to present herself as the potential future of the Democratic Party and set out the agenda that Biden wasn’t able to last week due to Trump’s constant interruptions. Biden, like Trump if he is re-elected, will be the oldest president inaugurated in U.S. history. Because of this, many looked at his choice of Harris as explicitly setting up a successor. Even if Biden serves out his entire term, it seems highly unlikely that he will run for a second one. Harris is now the heir apparent of the Democratic Party, and she needed to use the VP debate to prove herself. She also needed to continue the Biden campaign’s appeal to the suburban swing voter, who the Democrats have clearly identified as the demographic that will take them over the top. In this sense, the VP debate was set up to be a more explicit “battle for the suburbs” than the presidential debate was last week.

In terms of form, the debate was much less explosive than the presidential debate. While Pence also consistently refused to respect the rules of the debate, his performance was less theatrical than Trump’s antics, with Pence choosing to talk over his time and dodging all questions rather than Trump’s constant aggressive interruptions. Pence and Harris both came off as more grounded, traditional politicians than the men who lead their respective tickets. Harris particularly had multiple one-liners that went viral, with many women seeing their own experiences with misogyny in the workplace in Harris’ sighs and reminders to Pence that she was still talking. Both candidates smiled and, to a certain extent, played nice with each other. It was more reminiscent of the Romney/Obama or Biden/Palin debates than any Trump debate. But we must remember, as Hamlet taught us, that “one can smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

The Two Faces of Kamala Harris 

Kamala Harris acquitted herself very well throughout the debate, hitting Pence time and time again on his horrific record on Covid-19. However, when pressed for her and Biden’s own plan, she almost always ducked the question. A more capable political operator than Pence, she was able to make her dodges of questions seem more natural — a fact helped by Pence’s frequent monopolization of the time. This duality of attacking Pence for his Covid record without proposing one of her own was representative of Harris’s performance throughout the debate.

Harris’s strategy very clearly was to hit Pence on as many of the innumerable failures of the Trump administration as she could. However, what this tactic obfuscates is that there are few policy differences between the Biden campaign and the Trump administration, especially when it comes to Covid. The same is true of the environment, the military, the economy, China, and policing. There is precious little difference between the campaigns when it comes to actual policy. Harris even vocally supported fracking, multiple times, and then even had her team tweet her support of it during the debate. 

Take, for example, police violence. While Harris made a passionate speech about Breonna Taylor, she also made sure to say that “bad cops” make the job of all cops harder. And in the end, her solution to police violence is to ban chokeholds. But these police reforms — banning chokeholds, body cameras, etc, — mean nothing. After all, let’s not forget that the officers who killed Eric Garner were not imprisoned or even indicted, even though chokeholds were already banned in New York City. Let’s remember that the cops who killed Breonna Taylor were wearing body cams when they killed her but had turned them off. And only one of those cops was indicted, and that was only for the bullets that missed. There are countless stories, countless stolen lives, countless failed reforms. 

We don’t need Kamala Harris’ performative reforms; we need to overthrow the whole institution of the police and the capitalist system it protects.

Pence, the Economy, Swine Flu, and the Coronavirus

Pence, like Harris, essentially avoided answering any actual questions at the debate, but he did it less subtly. He bounced around, went back to questions, and never really laid out a coherent argument for why the Trump administration should be re-elected. On the subject of Covid, he brought up — as Trump has done before — the Obama administration’s handling of swine flu. This is clearly one of the talking points that the Trump campaign has decided on. However, to make this argument required a hypothetical that resulted in Pence arguing that if “the swine flu had been as lethal as the coronavirus, 2009, when Joe Biden was vice president, we would have lost 2 million American lives.”

Whether this argument will work or not remains to be seen, but it didn’t really work for Trump when he brought up a similar critique at the last debate. The issue here is that swine flu was not as lethal as the coronavirus, and for the hundreds of thousands of families who have either lost a loved one or been sick themselves, it seems unlikely that the hypothetical of “what if a different virus had been as bad 11 years ago” will really bring them around, especially as the president who is arguing this is himself sick with the virus. 

This is the issue that Pence and the Trump campaign as a whole hasn’t found a very good way to combat: the coronavirus is a massive issue and has impacted practically every person’s life. Add to this the economy, and the Trump/Pence argument that Covid isn’t that big of a deal and that the economy is actually doing very well will likely ring false. 

James Carville, when running Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, famously coined what has become one of the biggest buzzwords in American politics when he hung a sign in the campaign office that read: “it’s the economy, stupid.” Almost every presidential election is dominated by the question of the economy, and the current election is no exception. Trump and Pence keep trying to claim that we are in the midst of a Great American Comeback and that 2021 will be the biggest year for growth in American history. This is, of course, total nonsense, but it also is exceedingly bad politics.

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Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 partially due to the fact that many viewed her as being totally out of touch with economic issues as she touted the Obama “recovery” of 2008 — a recovery that never really reached most people and forced an entire generation into precarious work. Trump is coming dangerously close to repeating the same mistake. While Pence did point out a few times during the debate that the Obama recovery wasn’t that great, he still returned to the lie that the current economic crisis is purely the result of Covid. While of course the Covid-induced shutdowns deeply hurt the economy, it had never totally recovered from 2008. The jobs that were created during the Obama/Biden “recovery” were precarious, lacked benefits, and were poorly paid. This is all coming home to roost now. 

The Trump/Pence campaign strategy regarding the economy is running a high risk of losing a large sector of those negatively impacted by the current economic crisis — a loss aided by the fact that the Biden campaign is whispering sweet nothings in their ears about how Biden will fix the economy, all without specifics because Biden and Trump are largely unified in their support of austerity and corporate bailouts. Indeed, in recent days, we have seen Trump essentially lose his usual lead over Biden when it comes to the economy, a lead that had been slipping for weeks.

With over 200,000 dead from the coronavirus, a president holding economic relief hostage while he and much of his White House are battling the virus themselves and the economy is in crisis, Pence needed to be a much more stabilizing presence on the debate stage than he was. While he was able to stop the bleed and by-and-large did not make matters worse, he continued with the overall campaign strategy of downplaying the virus and focusing on personal responsibility, the heroism of “the American People,” and pie-in-the-sky promises of an economic recovery that will be bigger than ever. It seems very unlikely that he did enough to win back the sectors of capital that are increasingly breaking with the Trump campaign, and beyond rallying the base, it isn’t clear that he did enough to bring back the Republican voters that they are losing to Biden. 

To the Right, To the Right, Everything in Politics in the Box to the Right

A remarkable yet unsurprising thing about the debate was how much of a race to the right it was. Like Biden, Harris seemed unwilling to take any political positions except when it came to opposing very popular progressive proposals. She once again said that the campaign did not support the Green New Deal, said multiple times that they wouldn’t ban fracking, talked about “good cops,” and denounced China. 

While they bickered on climate change — and Pence showed a very worrying unwillingness to acknowledge it as a real and dangerous phenomena — neither candidate and neither party has any solutions to the pending climate crisis. Biden and Harris won’t even ban fracking, can we really expect them to do anything of consequence for the environment?

This rightward shift also demonstrates in the clearest sense the failures of lesser evilism. Every election year, the Democrats tell us that we have to support whatever neoliberal shill they put on the ballot because the alternative is a Republican. While this argument is compelling to many, this strategy has the effect of moving the entire political stage to the right. 

For an example of this, we only need to look at what has become of the Democratic Party since the beginning of the Biden-Harris campaign. At the start of 2020, it seemed like the progressive wing of Bernie Sanders was about to take over the Democratic Party. His policies were the center of every debate, and he was winning state after state. But then the Democratic establishment coalesced behind Biden, and Sanders liquidated not just his own campaign but his entire wing. All of the progressives are wholeheartedly behind Biden-Harris, because they are the lesser evil against Trump. But in response to this support from progressives, Biden hasn’t moved to the left but the right. Kamala Harris sat on stage, looked into the camera, and supported fracking. And not just once.

This is the candidate that Bernie Sanders, AOC, and much of the organized left has decided to support. 

Believe What They’re Telling us

We need to understand that the Democratic Party will never be our party. It belongs to the capitalists — capital by-and-large supports Biden — and they do not have our interests at heart. When Harris looked into the camera and told us that Trump/Pence were “coming for” us, she could just as easily have been talking about her own potential administration. As president, Biden will implement devastating austerity, destroy social programs, wreck the environment, increase imperialism abroad, and make sure that private health insurance providers can continue to profit off of our sickness and death. Don’t take my word for it; Biden and Harris say it themselves. In every debate, every speech, and every ad, they tell us who they are and what they’re about. They love fracking and hate universal healthcare. That’s who they are, and that’s what they’ll be in the White House.

The Trump/Pence and Biden/Harris campaigns may get on TV and play-act as if they have deep ideological differences, but at their core, they are in lockstep, marching the working class and the oppressed towards an increased assault of austerity. That, much more than the comic potential of a fly on Mike Pence’s head, must be our biggest take away from this debate. 

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Ezra Brain

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

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