Takeaways from the vice presidential debate

Historian Barbara D. Savage shares her thoughts on the first vice presidential debate in history featuring a Black woman.

Kamala Harris waving and smiling at left, Vice President Mike Pence at a podium on the right
Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence

The vice presidential debate between U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence was more civil than the chaotic presidential debate the week before, but it wasn’t devoid of sparks. And more than just an audition for the role of second in command, the night was also historic—featuring the first Black and Indian-American woman as a vice presidential candidate, and only the third woman in history in that position.

Penn Today asked  Barbara D. Savage, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought in the Department of Africana Studies, to share her thoughts on the debates. Savage’s research focuses on, among other topics, 20th-century African American history, the history of the relationship between the media and politics, and Black women’s intellectual and political history. 

Disregard for rules

“The Trump/Pence debate strategy was to dominate the forum and the time by disregarding the rules, hoping to appear strong and to unnerve their opponents while belittling the moderator who serves as a stand-in for the press. In this case, having a female moderator amplified the image of a man talking over not just one but two women. Breaking the debate rules also reinforced the idea that rules only apply to others and not to Trump/Pence. His ‘strong man’ performance may have appealed to those for whom that is a primary consideration for leadership.

“Harris was unfazed by that strategy and did not even appear surprised by it. She was able to stay focused on the campaign’s messaging on health care, on failure to lead, and misleading in a public health crisis.” 

Barbara Savage
Barbara Savage, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought. (Image: Penn Arts & Sciences)

Stereotype tightrope

“Much has been said about the often misplaced ‘angry black women’ trope. She came across as smart, sincere, well-informed, and strong in her beliefs and in her confidence in her own ability and ideas. She did all that with discipline and grace and without appearing to lose her temper. 

“Women candidates must walk this tightrope: how to balance appearing confident and strong and capable without triggering insecurities among people who don’t like that in a woman. Personal and political notions of masculinity and femininity—overlaid by race—also govern how people react to the display of characteristics like independence, intelligence, competency which are often viewed favorably when shown by men but for women not so much. Not limited to politics of course.”

Taking a stand 

“Had it been my choice, I would have advised that the candidates stand rather than sit. I think that Harris would have appeared even more in command had she been standing rather than sitting. For Pence, it would not have mattered.”

The fly

A bit of levity, yes, but also a reminder that Harris was correct to request the plexiglass.  If something as huge as that fly could permeate the stage, so could something as teeny tiny as the coronavirus.