If there was one takeaway from the Vice Presidential debate, it is that of civility. The sitting Vice President Mike Pence and the running mate on the Democratic ticket Senator Kamala Harris might not have seen eye-to-eye on many or all issues between them and may have even been at odds on one or two occasions, but they made sure their debate did not turn out to be yet another laughing stock of the world. If Donald Trump turned his first debate with the former Vice President Joseph Biden into some sort of a locker room brawl, his Vice President was quite composed, calm and down to earth when compared to the aggressive Senator Harris.
The straight-faced answer Pence gave to the questions posed often reminded of a student going into an examination with a set of answers in mind and putting them down in an exam script irrespective of what was asked! A loyal foot soldier in the Trump administration who has at least openly never given up on his boss, Pence, during the course of the nearly two-hour debate, defended the indefensible and even tried to turn the tables on the Democrats on the COVID crisis, the vaccine for it, trade war, Supreme Court, health care, and accepting the validity of election results. The evasiveness of Pence has often been passed off as his strength, especially when it came to facing media persons.
As expected, Senator Harris ripped into Pence and the Trump administration on the coronavirus as the Vice President headed the White House Task Force. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country… This administration has forfeited their right to re-election,” Senator Harris charged. Pence’s response was along expected lines: that the Trump administration’s response had been swift and it was the Democrats who cried foul when the White House banned flights from China. Still there was no response as to why the administration failed to mount an aggressive response when as early as January the alarm bells had started ringing, Senator Harris maintained.
“Here are the facts: 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last seven months. Over seven million people who have contracted this disease. We’re looking at over 30 million people, who in the last seven months, had to file for unemployment,” Senator Harris said pointedly. The California Democrat, who was formerly the Attorney General of that State, was quite in her form when she took on the Vice President while addressing the present administration’s attempts to do away with the Affordable Care Act. “If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you,” Senator Harris said. making the point that the Grand Old Party and the administration are currently trying to undo pre-existing conditions protected by the Act.
Of course there were moments in which both Pence and Harris dished out standard answers; and the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, was taken to task for allowing Pence to speak over the stipulated time. But like what Chris Wallace faced on September 29 at the Trump-Biden debate, her protestations went nowhere. The general feeling even before the two debaters got down to business was the larger context of what is happening in America today and in the intensification of the talk over the coronavirus.
The self proclaimed genius, who is now pretending himself to be a medical doctor and a pharmacologist, seems to have flouted all norms and protocols revolving around the handling of the virus. Not only getting out of Walter Reed Medical Hospital was ill-advised, he contemptuously discarded the wearing of masks and social distancing upon reaching the White House. Over-enthusiastic and timid aides and advisors of the President are unable to do anything with a person who simply will not listen.
Right from the time Trump tweeted that he was down with the virus, questions have been raised on the truthfulness of the time line: was he already infected last Wednesday itself instead of only announcing it on Thursday? In fact, some are wondering if the President was down with COVID-19 at the time of his raucous debate with the former Vice President Joseph Biden in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29. The confirmation of his infection came on a late night when apparently he had already tested positive in a rapid test earlier during the course of the day.
Trump may want to put on an aura of a divine intervention, first of having been infected and later in such a short time recovery, but many within the White House and outside would want to have no truck with this thinking except for a handful of hardcore supporters. A terrified White House is looking at the President returning to the Oval Office and further spreading the virus when even his physicians are unwilling to go on record clearing Trump to have fully recovered. “He is not fully out of the woods” seems to be the common refrain.
A good section of the White House—close to two dozen by one count—is down with COVID, including top advisors and the denial game continues.
Even the top echelons of the Pentagon, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have gone into self-imposed quarantine on account of having come into contact with someone or the other who has been infected. In the midst of all this, Trump proudly claims that maybe he is “immune”. The general consensus is that carelessness, with which the President went about his business in the campaign trail and inside the White House, may have contributed to being infected and in the process giving it to others who may have been in close proximity.
The Commander-in-Chief who is now feared to be doubling up as “Spreader-in-Chief” is not about to relent and his supporters are making it known that wearing a mask or maintaining a safe distance would be “unpatriotic”; and this coming at a time when some states have reported a record uptick in cases. Much as how the President and his campaign team are trying to put the spin that Trump is now in a better position to talk about the coronavirus, not many are willing to dabble with this silly proposition. With this comes the preposterous faulting of Biden because he has not been infected and hence would not know!
There is an element of uncertainty on whether the second debate between Trump and Biden will take place at all given that it requires at least ten days for a clean bill of health to the President—something that the Democratic camp is insisting, but obviously scorned at by the White House. In fact, several Democrats are saying Biden must refuse the debate given that he has the probability of contracting the infection from Trump while on stage in Miami, Florida. The Commission on Presidential Debates has made it plain even prior to the Vice Presidential debate that any member of audience not wearing a mask will be removed from the venue. This comes after defiant family members of the President refused to wear masks in the first debate.
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations)