In the Oct. 8 vice presidential debate, the candidates played tug-of-war over different versions of the truth.
Kamala Harris began the second debate for the growingly contentious election by listing the cost of the Covid-19 Pandemic: 200,000 dead Americans, one-in-five businesses closed, and 30 million registered for unemployment. She called this the “greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”
Mike Pence responded with an alternate version of reality, one in which the Trump Administration’s handling of the crisis was a mitigated success. He put particular emphasis on Trump’s travel ban between the U.S. and China, a move which he cites as preventing hundreds of thousands of American deaths.
“[Dr Fauci and Dr Birx] said to us that if we did everything right, we could still lose over 200,000 Americans,” said Pence, a statement which left the truth muddled between two opposing narratives of the administration’s performance.
While Trump’s handling of the coronavirus was a central topic in the debate, his recent diagnosis was featured less in discussions, appearing only as a backdrop to a question on presidential succession.
The two candidates also expressed clashing versions of the economy. Harris attacked Trump’s trade war with China, saying that “America lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs, farmers have experienced bankruptcy because of it, we are in a manufacturing recession because of it.”
The vice president shared a differing view of Trump’s results in improving the economy.
“In our first three years, this administration saw 500,000 manufacturing jobs created,” Pence said, “and that’s the type of growth we’re going to see.”
The struggle over truth was also seen in the candidates' disagreements on multiple of Joe Biden’s policies. Pence stated that Biden would end fracking; Harris stated that he would not. Pence claimed that Biden would “raise taxes on every American”; Harris stated that he would, in fact, decrease them.
Pence’s claim about Biden’s tax plan has been shown to be false; Biden’s plan in fact includes more than a dozen tax cuts for the middle class.
Both candidates addressed this struggle over fact, each accusing the other of dealing in misinformation.
“I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth,” Harris said in response to Pence’s claim that Biden would raise taxes. Pence offered his own accusation of dishonesty, saying: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
“I think Kamala let Pence get away with too much,” said Danial Hashemi, a sophomore studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Irvine, California, “which allowed Pence to flip the facts on what Kamala was saying.”
The candidates' performances were also marred by their refusal to answer certain questions. When asked if he believed climate changed to be an existential threat, Pence answered, “The climate is changing. We’ll follow the science. But once again, Senator Harris is denying the fact that they’re going to raise taxes.”
Harris was similarly evasive on the topic of whether Democrats would pack the Supreme Court, declining to give a definitive answer on whether she and Biden planned to do so upon the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett. Instead, she referred to Trump’s placement of federal judges: “Do you know that of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the court of appeals for lifetime appointments, not one is Black?”
Both candidates dodged the question of presidential disability, with Pence referring back to his talking point on the development of a vaccine: “The reality is that we’re going to have a vaccine, senator, in record time,” and Harris recounting the day Biden asked her to be his running mate.
“Neither of the candidates fully answered the questions,” said Jessica Santos, a junior majoring in Chemical Engineering from Dallas, Texas. “Especially Mike Pence. He just avoided talking about climate change, and abortions, and so many other issues.”
Pence was eager to shift blame for Coronavirus onto China, saying, “We’re going to hold China accountable for what they did to Americans with the coronavirus.”
This China-Culpa messaging was seen in a video posted to Donald Trump’s twitter earlier this Wednesday, in which he promised to “make China pay” for the coronavirus pandemic.
Pence was interruptive throughout the debate, speaking over both Harris and the moderator at several points.
“Mike Pence is a lot more like Trump than I previously imagined,” Santos said. “He kept interrupting Kamala Harris, and he continuously went over the two-minute limit.”
While this debate demonstrated more control than the previous one between Biden and Trump on Sept. 29., the vice presidential candidates ultimately failed to offer substantial clarity on their key platform points, with each candidate putting forth conflicting information on several topics.
“They really need live fact checkers,” Hashemi said. “But there’s no way the Trump administration would ever agree to a debate with live fact checkers.”