Senator Kamala Harris has two big jobs on Wednesday night: to show the nation and the world that she is ready. That she has the temperament and steel to be America’s wingwoman to the commander in chief. Her second task and more important task is to prove that she can effectively hammer Mike Pence and Donald Trump on their epically failed coronavirus pandemic response.
There could not be a more stark contrast between the two candidates for the nation’s second-highest office. The white-haired, reserved evangelical, pro-life, married-to-one-woman over 30 years, father of three, arch-conservative Mike Pence, who is Trump’s most loyal lieutenant. Versus the younger, more progressive, more newly married stepmother of two, Black and South Asian daughter of immigrants.
They will present two very different visions of America. No doubt they’ll cover the usual range of topics: a struggling economy, racial unrest, the rise of white supremacy (according to both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI Director), the fight for equal justice under law, the looming battle over the Supreme Court, and more.
But the heart of the debate will surely revolve around their two very different outlooks on our current reality of over 210,000 dead Americans, and over 7 million infected citizens due to COVID-19, a president who himself contracted the virus, and a White House superspreader event naming a new Supreme Court nominee that has infected dozens of senior staff and some military leaders. Pence has been the biggest enabler of Trump’s disastrous behavior, infamously telling George Stephanopoulos in late August, “I couldn't be more proud of the leadership President Trump has provided from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.”
I wonder if he is proud now? After what the most generous of political onlookers think has been maybe the president’s worst week on the handling of the COVID crisis since he suggested we all shoot up Lysol. Will Pence (who has now agreed to have a plexiglass shield during the debate, after mocking Harris for suggesting this) repeat such idiocies? If so, how will Harris respond?
I think she will bring this issue up again and again, and make Pence (remember, he's chairman of the Coronavirus Response Task Force) defend the indefensible. She is a former prosecutor, and current member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has made grown men like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions wither and appear to want to cry.
Pence, for his part, has a very different job—and a challenging one for a man who is generally soft-spoken. With the Trump-Pence team behind badly in all the national polls, Pence and his team will feel he needs to make America afraid of Harris being a heartbeat away. So he’ll stoke his base and middle America’s fears about her as a radical feminist leftist who wants to bring socialism to America’s heartland.
The fact that these candidates are both “supporting acts” to septuagenarian men (one of them sick and obese) adds a little extra drama here and may make viewers pay closer attention than normal.
And Harris will have to do a difficult balancing act. She’ll need to show the world she is ready to play the traditional bad-cop role of hammering the other party’s nominee, and yet she has to remain feminine, poised, and not too “emotional.” All of us ambitious professional women have to do it everyday of our lives. It’s not fair. It just is what it is, as someone we all know recently said in another context.
As we tune into this historic debate, I am reminded of something Harris said this summer in her pre-buttal to Trump’s RNC acceptance speech on August 27, 2020: “But here’s the thing. He’s the president of the United States, and it’s not supposed to be about him. It’s supposed to be about the health and the safety and the wellbeing of the American people. And on that measure, Donald Trump has failed. You see, at its most basic level, Donald Trump doesn’t understand the presidency. He thinks it’s all about him. Well, it’s not. It’s about you. It’s about all of us, the people.”
Her words were almost prophetic with regard to the horrific presidential conduct we have all witnessed in the past several days since Trump checked in to Walter Reed and then checked himself out, standing on the Truman balcony, ripping his face mask off, and basking in the media spotlight.
It seems that the wind is blowing hard and fast behind the Biden-Harris sails. Former First Lady Michelle Obama released a stinging rebuke of Trump in a video Tuesday titled “Closing Argument.” She took the gloves off, calling Trump a racist and accusing him of being reckless with the lives of Secret Service agents and others who faithfully serve him. Tonight, my sorority sister must put the gloves on and punch Pence for his large and crucial role in failing to protect the nation from COVID-19. It will be the most effective knockout punch she can render.