The Vice Presidential Debate Shouldn’t Have Happened (Column)

Without a safe way to proceed amidst coronavirus running rampant through the White House, this debate shouldn't have taken place.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., answers a question as Vice President Mike Pence listens during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

When asked directly about attending the Rose Garden event that has now been linked to dozens of COVID-19 diagnoses within the White House, with new ones reported every day, Vice President Mike Pence dodged to commend “the American people” on their ability to make good decisions. But the question wasn’t about how the American people deal with the risk of contracting coronavirus. It was about Pence’s own decisions to flout scientific recommendations in order to attend events and photo ops that may have endangered the entire executive branch. Nothing Pence said in the days afterward or during tonight’s debate assured “the American people” that he’s taken the precautions necessary to keep himself and those around him safe.

Predicting the future has become an absolute fool’s game in recent years. And yet, it feels like a safe bet that when history looks back on the 2020 Vice Presidential debate, we won’t be parsing Pence’s calculated condescension, Kamala Harris’ pointed body language or Susan Page’s lax moderating job. It won’t be about the nine topics Page chose prior, or even the measured way in which the candidates sparred about them. No: before, during, and after the debate, it’s proved just about impossible to ignore the thin plexiglass elephant in the room — which is as it should be. Rarely has there been as crystalline an embodied metaphor as those walls hovering tenuously between the candidates, giving the appearance of care but in reality, doing practically nothing at all.

“We’ve taken extra precautions during this pandemic,” said Page to open the debate, as if to preempt this exact criticism. A brief shot of the audience confirmed that it was far sparser than usual, with members sitting feet apart and in masks. The candidates and moderator were seated 12 feet apart, the stark reminder of the plexiglass bifurcating the stage. The thinking behind these flimsy barriers, supposedly, was to shield Harris, Page and the audience from potential COVID-19 contamination given that Pence was well within the scope of infection before President Trump and well over a dozen of his closest advisors tested positive for a deadly virus that still has no cure. It’s worth noting, too, that the Commission on Presidential Debates only installed the two oval plexiglass shields on either side of the candidates’ desks the night before the event after repeated requests from the Harris camp, and despite the Trump/Pence campaign’s open derision at the very idea. That Pence was so reticent to entertain even the slightest of precautions is almost as astonishing as this debate going forward amid considerable risk to everyone gathered for it. 

After the debacle that was the first presidential debate, followed by Trump’s troubling diagnosis, you’d think that the CPD might be more invested in preventing disaster this time around. But instead of doing anything meaningful to combat a possible new outbreak, they threw up a couple useless planks of fake glass and called it a day. As per many experts in the field, those plexiglass barriers are pathetic reinforcements against the threat of COVID-19. If the virus was present in that room, it would have no trouble getting past them. It might be better than nothing, but even better than that would be some actual guarantee of safety. Even better than risking lives, and fueling the president’s incendiary false claims that COVID is nothing to be afraid of, would be altogether ditching the idea that an in-person debate needed to happen during an ongoing national crisis. 

Clinging to norms in a historically unstable time is an understandable instinct. But nothing is “normal” right now, and ignoring common sense in the face of a deadly pandemic isn’t just irrational, but actively dangerous. Without being able to trust beyond a shadow of a doubt that the vice presidential debate would be safe, it never should have happened in the first place.