For a while on Wednesday night, a small part of our politics seemed to return to normal. Two candidates, sitting across from each other, debated the issues of the day. It was the format and style, we’d grown accustomed to seeing. It was how we watched George W. Bush and John Kerry and Barack Obama and John McCain. Lies were told, of course, but there was, at least, the veneer of civility… something that we haven’t seen on this stage since Donald Trump stepped on the presidential stage. For a moment, it felt like things were normal.
And yet, we know none of what happened last night was truly normal and the fact that the debate was happening in the first place was perhaps the most profound display of abnormality.
Since last Tuesday’s presidential debate — if you can even deign to call it that — the president announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. We still don’t know where or from whom he contracted the virus because this White House refuses to do the responsible thing and engage in contact tracing. Always interested in escaping accountability for his own reckless behavior, Trump has — as recently as today — blamed his COVID diagnosis on Gold Star families who draw too close when telling him about the family member they lost in combat. But for the intrepid work of one journalist, Jennifer Jacobs, who uncovered the positive COVID test of White House Senior Adviser Hope Hicks, it is not clear that the White House ever had plans to tell the American people that the president and his wife had been exposed to or that they’d tested positive for the virus.
Soon after the results of his test were made public, the president’s condition deteriorated to the point that he was given supplemental oxygen and was subsequently transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center. The White House sent repeated assurances that the president was just fine — including videos, photos and tweets confirming the president was “hard at work” writing on blank sheets of paper — despite Trump receiving an experimental antibody cocktail and steroids commonly prescribed for severely symptomatic cases. By Saturday, the president was bored and forced the Secret Service to parade him around to his fans. By Monday, the president forced his doctors to release him and returned to the White House, for another photo opportunity on the Truman balcony, a photo op that only further revealed that the president was not and is not well. By Wednesday, he was back in the Oval Office, assuring the public that he was fine — and, maybe, had immunity (spoiler alert: he does not have immunity) — while anyone who wanted to get close to him had to wear a full hazmat suit. This morning, his campaign has proclaimed that the president is ready to get back on the campaign trail and host another super-spreader event rally.
The president is not fine and this is not normal… and every moment these candidates spend doing things the way they’ve always been done (plexiglass and social distancing notwithstanding), the more we suggest to the public that things are normal.
Last night’s vice presidential debate should’ve been done remotely. Kamala Harris should’ve been far, far away from Mike Pence, who — despite his assertions to the contrary — has very likely been exposed to the coronavirus. Pence should have been in quarantine, both as a protective measure for himself and those around him, and to ensure that, if the president’s health deteriorated, he would be ready and available to step in. Last night, Kamala Harris, quite rightly, called this administration’s COVID-19 response “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country” and, as such, we should stop clinging to what was normal and do what is safe and right for the American people.
Thankfully, the Commission on Presidential Debates has reconsidered their approach and will host the second presidential debate virtually. The president has, thus far, said that he will not participate in such a debate.
But there was another way in which Wednesday night’s debate was also “not normal” but in the best way possible: Until last night, there had never been a black woman or an Indian-American woman participating as a candidate. Before the debate, Asian-Americans on social media honored the unsung women who changed their lives and, ultimately, paved the way for the moment we got to witness last night using the hashtag, #AAPISheRose.
— Maya Harris (@mayaharris_) October 7, 2020
This is my grandmother who dressed up like a boy to hitch a ride to town to go to school, and a lifelong advocate for teacher's rights. I honor her today as our first aapi candidate for VP @KamalaHarris takes the debate stage. You got this, Kamala. We got your back. #AAPISheRose pic.twitter.com/nAIOVBwEod
— Alice Wu (@thatalicewu) October 7, 2020
This is my nai-nai: abandoned & pregnant when she fled China to Taiwan, #sherose to join the Air Force like Captain Marvel, raise two sons & me. Today, I honor her as I watch @kamalaharris take the debate stage at 6PT/9ET. Who are your sheroes? #AAPISheRose pic.twitter.com/Egq9xXJJ7d
— Nancy Wang Yuen 🎃👻 (@nancywyuen) October 7, 2020
It’s easy to overlook or underappreciate the significance of this moment, to allow the politics to sway us to disregard its importance, but regardless of how you feel about Kamala Harris’ candidacy or her politics, her presence on that stage makes the next black woman… the next Indian-American… the next Asian-American’s presence that much more likely. Representation matters, now and always.
Harris’ one-on-one debate with Pence allowed her to flex the skills she’s honed as a prosecutor: She was able to clearly lay out the case against another four years of the Trump administration, while making a strong argument for Joe Biden’s vision for America. She started strong right out of the gate, blasting the current administration for its handling of the pandemic and delivering what I thought was her most effective argument of the night.
“Can you imagine if you knew on January 28th, as opposed to March 13th, what they knew, what you might’ve done to prepare?” Harris asked the American people. “They knew, and they covered it up… And frankly, this administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this.”
But then came the interruptions… and a reminder that while Mike Pence might walk around with that veneer of civility, he is still every bit the misogynist the president is. Pence interrupted Harris numerous times, sometimes interjecting his own questions into the discussion. He repeatedly talked over the debate’s moderator, USA Today’s Susan Page, and ignored her calls to respect the time limits that the campaigns had agreed upon.
And Kamala Harris just had to sit there and grin and bear it because that is what society demands of women and especially what it demands of black women. I suspect all the women who were watching were triggered by these repeated confrontations: reminded of the men in their own lives who speak over them and who pretend like they know better when they clearly do not. It was a bad look for a Trump campaign that continues to hemorrhage support from women.
The most Page could do was repeat, “Thank you Vice President Pence,” until he got the message and moved on. The most Harris could do was forcefully respond to his interjections by saying, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” as if his actions weren’t willful. Occasionally Harris shot back a wry smile, a dismissive laugh or a side-eye. He deserved more — he deserved to be told to “shut up” as Biden told Trump last week — but society does not afford Kamala Harris that privilege.
She could not be angry, so Harris delivered some sass. As Brittney Cooper writes in Eloquent Rage, “When it comes to Black women, sometimes Americans don’t recognize that sass is simply a more palatable form of rage. Americans adore sassy Black women… These kinds of Black women put white folks at ease.”
The first rule of the vice presidential debates is almost always to “do no harm” and based on the results of the post-debate poll from CNN, Harris exceeded expectations. She re-introduced herself to the nation in a way that improved her favorability and bolster Joe Biden’s efforts to “restore the soul of America.” Pence, on the other hand, faced a real challenge over resetting the Trump campaign after a disastrous outing by the president last week. I’m not sure they accomplished that goal but at least they didn’t kill anybody… yet.