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Friday, October 09, 2020

The Vice-Presidential Debate and the State of American Politics

 I watched the Vice Presidential debate on Wednesday, and I was struck not only by the lack of discipline--which, while not as bad as in the presidential one, was striking--but also by the failure of both candidates even to make any pretense of answering many of the concise and specific questions posed by moderator Susan Page. I decided to look at the debate carefully to see how many questions they actually answered.  Here are the exact questions that Susan Page asked each candidate, and a brief summary of their responses.  I begin with the 12 questions addressed specifically to Senator Harris.

1. "What would a Biden administration do in January and February that a Trump administration wouldn't do? Would you impose new lockdowns for businesses and schools in hotspots? A federal mandate to wear masks?"

A. After criticizing the Trump administration's response, she answered,  "...our plan is about what we need to do around a national strategy for contact tracing, for testing, for administration of the vaccine and making sure that it will be free for all." This I would call a vague bur responsive answer.

2.   "If the Trump administration approves a vaccine, before after the election, should Americans take it and would you take it?"

A.  "If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I'm not taking it."That was a completely responsive answer.

3. "Senator Harris,  have you had a conversation, or reached an agreement with Vice President Biden, about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of presidential disability? And if not, and if you win the election next month, do you think you should?"  Senator Harris chose not to make any response to that question at all. 

4.  "You know neither, neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden has released the sort of detailed health information that had become the modern norm until the 2016 election. And in recent days, President Trump's doctors have given misleading answers or refused to answer basic questions about his health. And my question to each of you, in turn, is, is this information voters deserve to know? "

A.  "Absolutely. And that's why Joe Biden has been so incredibly transparent."   The Senator denied the premise of the question, and then segued into taxes.

5.  "Senator Harris, the Biden Harris campaign has proposed new programs to boost the economy and you would pay for that new spending by raising $4 trillion in taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Some economists warn that could curb entrepreneurial ventures that fuel growth and create jobs. Would raising taxes for the recovery at risk?"  A. Talking about Vice President Biden's plans for spending on infrastructure and education, she implied that raising taxes would not put the recovery at risk, but she never specifically addressed the question.

6. " What exactly would be the stance of a Biden Harris Administration toward the green New Deal?" Her answer did not mention the Green New Deal.

7.  " Senator Harris, I’m going to ask you the same question that I asked the Vice President. How would you describe our fundamental relationship with China? Are we competitors, adversaries, enemies?"  Senator Harris attacked Trump's policies without answering the question at all.

8. "What's your definition – we've seen strains with China, of course, as the Vice President mentioned, we’ve seen strains with our traditional allies in NATO and elsewhere. What is your definition of the role of American leadership in 2020?"
"Joe, I think, he said, quite well. He says, you know, ‘Foreign policy: it might sound complicated, but really it's relationships there – just think about it as relationships. And so we know this, in our personal, professional relationships – you guys keep your word to your friends. Got to be loyal to your friends. People who have stood with you, got to stand with them. You got to know who your adversaries are, and keep them in check."  That was a broad and responsive answer.

9.  " If Roe v Wade is overturned, what would you want California to do? Would you want your home state to enact no restrictions on access to abortion?" A.  She gave no answer at all, but segued to Affordable Care Act.

10.  "Senator Harris, in the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?"

A.  "I don't believe so, and I've talked with Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and her family, and she deserves justice." That answered directly but she did not elaborate, turning instead to George Floyd.

11. "If your ticket wins and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what steps would you and Vice President Biden then take? What would happen next?"  A. Senator Harris didn't answer this question at all but merely asked everyone to vote.

12.  If our leaders can't get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”

"Joe has a long standing reputation of working across the aisle and working in a bipartisan way. And that's what he's going to do as President." That was an answer.

Totaling up, I find that Senator Harris gave specific answers to just five out of twelve questions: 1, 2, 8,  10, 12.  She implicitly or very broadly answered two more: 4 and 5.  She gave no answer to 3, 6, 7, 9, and 11. 

Now, to Vice President Pence.

1.  "Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?"  The Vice President ignored this question, praising the Trump Administration's response to the epidemic.

2. "How can you expect Americans to follow the administration safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you were at the White House have not been doing so?"

"Well, the American people have demonstrated over the last eight months that when given the facts they're willing to put the health of their families, and their neighbors and people they don't even know first. President Trump and I have great confidence in the American people and their ability to take that information and put it into practice. "  That did answer the question.

3.  " Vice President Pence, have you had a conversation or reached an agreement with President Trump about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of presidential disability? And if not, do you think you should?"  The Vice President refused to discuss this at all,  and went back to COVID issues.

4.  "You know neither, neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden has released the sort of detailed health information that had become the modern norm until the 2016 election. And in recent days, President Trump's doctors have given misleading answers or refused to answer basic questions about his health. And my question to each of you, in turn, is, is this information voters deserve to know?"

A.  "And the transparency that they [the President's doctors] practiced all along, they will continue because the American people have a right to know about the health and well-being of their President." Like Senator Harris, the Vice President denied the premise of this question.

5.  "Should Americans be braced for an economic comeback that is going to take not months, but a year or more?" A. Implicitly, he answered no, but he didn't answer the question directly at all.

6.  "Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter and more deadly? And it made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging?"

He answered. no, forest management is  responsible for the first problem and "there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago.

7.  "Vice President Pence, how would you describe our, our fundamental relationship with China? Competitors? Adversaries? Enemies?"

"We want to improve the relationship, but we're going to level the playing field and we’re going to hold China accountable for what they did to America with the coronavirus "  That answered the question.

8.  " If Roe v Wade is overturned, what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?"

He was totally unresponsive. Later, he said, "I'm pro-life. I don't apologize for it."

9.  "So, tell us, specifically – how will your administration protect Americans with pre-existing conditions and give access to affordable insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down."

A.  Rather than even attempt to answer this, he talked about abortion and the Supreme Court instead.

10. "In the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?"

"I trust our justice system, a grand jury that reviews the evidence. And it really is remarkable, that as a former prosecutor, you would assume that in a panel grand jury, looking at all the evidence, got it all wrong."  That was a direct and concise answer.

11. "If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as Vice President? What would you personally do? "

He was totally unresponsive, and denied the possibility of losing.

12,  "If our leaders can't get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”

A.  " here in America, we can disagree we can debate vigorously as Senator Harris and I have on the stage tonight. But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans." That answer, parallel to question 2, put his trust in the American people to do the right thing.

Vice President Pence, in  my opinion, gave definite answers to questions 2, 6, 7, 8, and 12.  He implicitly answered 4 and 5 but without directly addressing either question in the terms that it was asked. He totally ignored questions 1, 2, 8, 9, and 11. 

I am amazed to find that I gave the two candidates--so different from one another in so many ways--exactly the same grades:  5 directly responsive answers, 2 implicitly responsive ones, and 5 completely unresponsive ones.  Meanwhile, they managed to get into lengthy debates over things they hadn't been asked about, such as the hearings on Amy Comey Barrett for the Supreme Court and Senator Harris's record as Attorney General in California.

All four 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates are available on youtube, and I think that anyone who looks at them at random will be struck by how readily they answer every question that they are asked.  Certainly they may then segue to a talking point--but that is an afterthought.  Nor, I think, did either one of them try to interrupt the other even once during the whole four hours of debate, or plead for extra reply time in contravention to the rules, as Trump, Biden, Harris and Pence all did.   This vice-presidential debate went better better than the presidential one, but I doubt that it did a great deal to restore popular confidence in our politicians and our political system.  It showed two politicians living largely in their own mental universes.


Unknown said...

I sometimes wonder whether the format of the so-called debates encourages such evasiveness. It is not at all necessary to involve the media. They could give prepared speeches and then launch into rebuttals. Media could fact-check later.

Bozon said...

Interesting point by point summary. And contrast with Nixon Kennedy was illuminating.

These kinds of faux debates have now become the norm.

Looking back to a set of well documented so called debates, on which books have been written, the Lincoln Douglas Debates, these were a series of adversarial speeches in the format opening, reply, and rejoinder, rather like in format the order and nature of lawyers' opening or closing statements to juries, with the candidates alternating the order of delivery for each successive joint debate.

There was no moderator or judge of who won a given so called debate. Each candidate's press told its readership who had won.

The candidates themselves conducted their presentations themselves. Each addressed points made in the other's opening speech, and each addressed the reply in the rejoinder.

Technical debates in rhetoric are more formal of course, and are judged on technical criteria.

The current situation illustrates many different aspects of how politics here have changed. The willingness to engage substantively, the role of the press, the reticence to commit specifically to specifics, and many other themes are seen here.

I would point out that Lincoln and Douglas also had a lot not to come clean about, both in their past political records, and in what they each might, or intended to, do if elected for that office. But the back and forth caused more of some of what each did not want to admit or discuss to be brought forth publicly and specifically.What they were really trying to hide, or the conspiracies real or imagined they were trying to illuminate or conceal, came out between two experienced insiders.

All the best

Energyflow said...

Evasiveness sems to be normal nowadays and talking past ome another. I think however that letting a debate moderator control discussion points is taking power out of one's hands. Journalists are not neutral. Lincoln Douglas debates lasted hours and were very complex. A general issue should be discussed freely and in detail(health care, defense, foreign relations economy) between two sides with substantive, detailed answers from both sides on key issues as in a congressional debate. TV dsound bites with vague pseudo talk is useless. It is typical of politicians nowadays to master the art of saying nothing for long speeches even, using nice sounding phrases. Hope and Change, Peace on Earth, blah, blah. It is nice that they did answer some questions of course. The health and transition question, given the Presidential candidates' ages is sensitive. What would I say if someone asked what did I intend if my wife died or am I prepared to meet my maker? In such a large, divided country it seems opinions have drifted widely and as is txypical a serious crisis would serve to reunite the people around a mutual experience. Covid, mass unemployment, hostilities with China, loss of USD reserve status and debt default followed by mass poverty without government support and then a Putin type strongman would be a possibility. Japan has gone 30 years in a downward spiral. America is trying a similar tactic but without natural social harmony, as a country of immigrants, it is not working. Keynesianism forever and expansive imperialism break the bank eventually. It seems that a serious discussion of America' s future is off the table. This is very similar to what we see nowadays with people who come to the doctor with overweight, diabetes, hypertension and he prescribes medication for the symptoms instead of lifestyle changes. ln general we are on the road to perdition. ' The end is nigh'. I should admire my depression era, hard working, penny pinching parents but even I see that as insane, never buying new stuff, eating blackk bananas and going only to thrift stores. One must find a middle ground of decency, healthy living, self respect without the excess of modern waste, profligacy and indebtedness. It seems both the old generation and the new had extreme behaviors based on material considerations alone. Balance is a social, spiritual matter. This is likely why Japan remains relatively stable as they have unspoken similar values which in America is not the case. 60s revolution brought freedoms that were interpreted in juxtaposed manners. Family is sacred or sexual freedom is sacred. Atheism is just as much a religon as any other and this is the basis of the secular coasttal regime dominating the Left, the Media, big cities. Just to take the issue of reproduction, of course sexuality is sacred, but also human life. Men and woman must find a balance and live in harmony. Similarly ethnic and racial harmony is possible when understanding is given to core areas, cultural aspects, history. Perhaps every marriage or community comes to a moment of explosion after building tension over core issues periodically. We seem to be at such a juncture now.

DAngler said...

I appreciate your analysis, and was surprised by the results. I think you got it right. It seems to me we voters would be far better served by a change in format. In today's world I believe moderated debates are the only possible way for the candidates to get equal time, but the moderator should be there only to enforce rules against interruptions. Let each candidate speak what they think the public needs to hear, and then respond to the other candidate's comments. The 2-minute time frames enforce shallow answers.

I keep asking myself how to prevent the candidates from interrupting each other? Also, how to prevent them from shaking their head, either yes or no?

On radio it was simple; just turn off their microphone, and they were mute and unseen. Perhaps TV should not even show the other candidate while one is speaking?

And, of course, after watching the unruly first presidential debate, I thought cattle prods inserted in each candidate's nether orifice and activated, as needed, by the moderator was what was needed. I don't say this with a grin. I say it with disgust. The first debate should be dubbed "The Un-Presidential Debate of 2020".

Gloucon X said...

The 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates had important format differences. Each candidate was given an eight-minute opening statement and a three-minute closing statement. This very wise feature gives the candidates time to get their message out so they won't be under pressure to do so during the questioning period. Also, the time allowed for answering questions was three and a half minutes rather than two. They also had a longer time for rebuttal, so they knew that their opponent could raise the fact that the question was not answered.

Under such a stupid format, I think the Harris/Pence debate is about the best we can expect. I thought they both did well. Give Kennedy and Nixon this format and I doubt they would have wasted precious time answering questions that didn't help them. These debate rules are the equivalent of holding the Bolshoi Ballet in a pigpen.

Bozon said...


Re COVID 19 and the longer history, re the VP debate discussion topics about blaming or not blaming China, or being generally for or against China, with which the virus issue has become bound up.

It continues to surprise me how few refer to our decision to offshore, long ago, a Fauci related issue, then subsidize, and then collaborate, for decades now with China, on dangerous virology research, involving both WMD capabilibilities and liabilities.

The answer certainly is that it is one of the most untouchable, in a large group, of bipartisan untouchable initiatives.

Why talk about things you don't really want the American people to know, regardless of the party you serve?

All the best

Unknown said...

Expectations for these debates are out of whack. When politicians promise a chicken in every pot, they will invariably evade the question as to how they will ensure that there are enough chickens to go around. Two minutes to answer is at the edge of the average voter's attention span for those voters who actually tune in the these debates. Politicians, during campaigns, exhibit the same level of opaque transparency as the government they hope to lead does in practice. The public relies on attack ads for the information required to support their already decided candidate, and has neither the patience or interest to view debates except to anticipate the possibility of blood. The word farce falls short of effectively defining these so called debates.

Bozon said...

Believe it not, I have a new comment here on the VP topic, at this weird moment of Presidential suspense.

It is an unusual thing to suggest, but i am going to suggest it anyway.

If there a good and sufficient reason, in such a close race, in such a country as ours, that Biden rather than Trump wins, it will not be so much because of either Trump or Biden themselves.

Rather, Biden's big advantage over Trump turns out to be Kamala Harris.

Trump only had Pence, even though an incumbent VP, still a weaker partner, electorally than Harris, for many different kinds of reasons, unseen apparently, either especially by Trump or by his team, which should have known better.

All the best