Vice-presidential debate spurs reaction from UMass community

UMass professors and students react to Harris-Pence debate

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(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

By Ella Adams, Collegian Correspondent

Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris took the debate stage on Oct. 7 for the sole 2020 vice presidential debate. Separated by plexiglass and heavily moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page, the two vice presidential candidates discussed the elections headlining issues.

The debate’s impact has been discussed in depth. In the two weeks following, the University of Massachusetts community has had time to consider how they believe this debate landed in scope of the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 3.

“Debates generally, and especially vice-presidential debates, rarely change the outcome of a presidential election in a meaningful way,” Associate Professor of Political Science Alex Theodoridis said. Theodoridis is also the associate director of the UMass Poll. “Most people, especially those tuning in to a vice presidential debate, have already made up their minds,” he added.

President of UMass Democrats Nico McCurrach seconded Theodoridis’ sentiments. He believes that this debate in particular most likely would not have an extended impact on the general election as a whole.

“It’s almost an unmemorable debate, I would say, in terms of policy and what was actually said of substance, because a lot of questions were danced around and dodged,” he said.

The debate’s substance, or lack thereof, was also raised by Jamie Rowen, associate professor of legal studies and political science. Rowen, who also directs the Center for Justice, Law and Societies, desired a depth for the debate that she believed was not present. “I wanted more substance and substantive answers to the questions from both parties,” she said.

While Theodoridis, McCurrach and Rowen suggested that this debate might not have severe repercussions, they acknowledged that the discussion of COVID-19 left its mark on the debate stage in a significant way.

“The fact that so much of the debate, especially the early portion, focused on the pandemic is unsurprising, but also not promising for the Trump campaign,” Theodoridis said. “If Americans are focused on the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 going into Election Day, that likely helps Biden.”

McCurrach agreed. He deemed the fragility of the Affordable Care Act in the context of Amy Coney Barrett’s likely Supreme Court confirmation to be a necessary piece of context as COVID-19 discussion ensued. “In the midst of a pandemic, what the American people should take away from the vice-presidential debate is that the Trump Administration does not have a plan to protect preexisting health conditions if the Affordable Care Act gets struck down,” McCurrach said.

Rowen also thought that the COVID-19 exchange was pertinent, especially considering her observation of Pence’s refusal to acknowledge the many mistakes that have occurred under the Trump administration. “That just feeds into the distrust that many of us feel towards this administration and their treatment of COVID-19,” she said.

She additionally acknowledged her desire for more explicit policy mentions from Harris, as she believes her campaign’s plan is very distinct from that of Pence.

Sheldon Goldman, professor emeritus of political science, also noted Pence’s lack of specificity on coronavirus policy. “He had great difficulty explaining the 200-plus thousand COVID-19 deaths on his watch. This should be the issue, along with health insurance, that should break the GOP,” Goldman said in an email last week.

President of UMass College Republicans and senior political science major, Ricky Cullen, also believed that the COVID-19 exchange was significant. Yet he regarded it in a different light. “The difference between policy between these two campaigns, you look at the Biden campaign’s policy plan on COVID, and it’s really not too drastically different from what the Trump Administration is doing,” Cullen said.

COVID-19 did not dominate the entire debate stage.

Cullen said Pence eloquently outlined the Trump administration’s policy plans. “I appreciated the most his mention of the trade war with China, with the Trump Administration really tackling trade and fair-trade deals across the globe to the United States, especially when it comes to taking on the Chinese government,” he said.

Rowen was struck by a different exchange. She believed the candidates’ responses to the question regarding the murder of Breonna Taylor were important to understanding how each campaign will address systemic racism in the United States.

“I thought that was a really telling exchange between the two of them about how you can enforce law enforcement and justice, versus ignore questions of justice and inequity and just try to gain the support of law enforcement and those who are feeling fearful of the racial state of affairs,” she said.

Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Political Science Rebecca Hamlin also found Harris’ comments surrounding systemic racism to be powerful. Her initial reaction, however, was to Harris’ general stature on the debate stage. She felt that it was historic to see a multiracial woman in such a powerful position.

“Something I feel like I can add, as someone who teaches about race and gender, is that Kamala Harris had to really grapple with a lot of baggage about what it means to be a black woman speaking as an authority figure in this country,” Hamlin said.

“We have all, all of us, been conditioned not to view Black women that way and to view them as angry when they have a strong opinion. And I think she did a stunningly good job of trying to push back on that stereotype while also coming across as authoritative.”

Regardless of individuals’ affiliations or expectations, all interviewees observed obvious division between party policies. While most chalked it up to the nature of the modern political cycle, Rowen in particular found it troubling that it promotes evasion as commonplace.

“I’m struck by the debate, I’m struck by other political exchanges right now, where they almost appear to be protecting the bubbles that people who are on the left and right are living in,” she said. “I wish that we would pop those, be able to engage in civil debate and create policies that make the most sense rather than the ones that feed the narratives that are being created in those bubbles.”

The gravity of issues discussed, however, seemed to pale in comparison to the heightened media attention given to the fly that landed on Pence’s head in the latter half of the debate. The question of substance arose again, as McCurrach explained that this was a telling symbol of the debate’s impact.

“The biggest story and headline that came out of the vice presidential debate was the fact that Mike Pence had a fly on his head, and I think that is largely indicative of what went on that night.”

Ella Adams can be reached at [email protected].