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COVID-19 continues to ravage the White House and Capitol Hill, and yet, the band plays on. Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will attempt to bring some normalcy back to the chaotic world of election politics Wednesday evening by participating in the first and only 2020 vice presidential debate at the University of Utah.
Of course, normal doesn’t mean much anymore.
The feasibility of the debate was unclear in the days leading up to it, and safety negotiations were hammered out between parties up until the last minute following President Donald Trump’s diagnosis of COVID-19, subsequent hospitalization, and the quick spread of the deadly virus to White House and Capitol Hill staff. Pence has so far tested negative, but he was exposed to a number of senior staff officials and senators who tested positive for the illness. In photos near these officials, Pence was seen not wearing a mask.
Pence’s doctor said in a letter Tuesday that he does “not need to quarantine” and has been “encouraged to go about his normal activities.”
Harris and Pence will sit 13 feet apart from each other at desks covered by plexiglass. The debate’s moderator, Susan Page, USA Today‘s Washington bureau chief, will also sit 13 feet away from candidates. There will be less than 100 guests in attendance, and they will all be tested for the virus and required to wear a mask. High quality MERV 13 air filters have been installed in the hall.
The debate will largely follow the format of last month’s presidential standoff, with nine topics to be covered for ten minutes each, but that’s about all the two debates will have in common. While the debate between Joe Biden and Trump exploded into theatrics—name-calling, interruptions, and little actual policy talk—tonight’s events are expected to be more subdued.
After the negative public reaction to the presidential debate, both VP candidates will likely avoid making the same errors. NBC News reported that Pence has been preparing with Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, to figure out ways to attack Harris “without opening himself up to criticism that he is acting in a disrespectful or sexist way.” Harris, meanwhile, has been prepping with former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who has been acting as Pence in practice debates.
Harris’ aides have made clear that she won’t invoke the “will you shut up, man?” tone that Biden used on stage last week. She will be seen differently and scrutinized more harshly simply because she isn’t a white man.
“If she pushes back too hard, she risks being perceived as an angry Black woman. If she doesn’t push back too hard, she seems weak or meek. If she brings up a strong point passionately, she runs the risk of being called too shrill,” said Tina Tchen, a former Obama aide and president and CEO of Time’s Up. “She’s been labeled as too ambitious although I’m sure she has the same ambitions as Mike Pence. That is exactly the additional burden women candidates and women of color are under in a setting like this.”
Ahead of the debates, Time’s Up commissioned Edelman Data & Intelligence to analyze media coverage of Harris following her VP announcement compared to coverage of Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in 2016. They found an extreme difference.
According to Time’s Up, one fourth of all coverage of Harris included what they considered racist and sexist stereotyping. That ranges from things as overt as calling her an “angry black woman” to suggesting “birther” conspiracy theories. About two thirds of all coverage mentioned Harris’ race or gender while only 5% of coverage mentioned Pence’s. That’s something she’ll be aware of while prepping for tonight’s debate.
But Harris, said Tchen, will likely avoid painting Pence as a misogynist on stage this evening. “For women who are in public life or in the business world, when these things happen they tend to straighten up, go high, and let it roll off their backs,” she said. “When you are the target of those kinds of statements it’s difficult for to call it out without looking like a whiner or complainer. It’s difficult for women of either party to be able to call it out.” Instead, Tchen hopes that organizations like hers can do the job for Harris, allowing Harris to focus on policy.
Tonight’s debate will be available live on ABC, CBS, CNN, C-Span, FOX, and NBC. MSNBC and Fox News will also offer coverage. The debate will also be available to view on C-SPAN and C-SPAN’s YouTube channel. Most coverage will begin at 8 p.m. ET, and the debate itself will run from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. ET.
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- Early members of “Wall of Moms” reflect on where they went wrong as protests in Portland continue
- A reading list for the 2020 presidential election, from the New York Public Library
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