PIQUERO: Election season needs substantive debates
Opinions Column: The Principled Millennial
Regardless of what you think about the 2016 presidential election (and, I’d wager, the feelings aren’t too positive), one would find it difficult to argue that the vice presidential debate on Tuesday night wasn’t a momentary bright spot in an otherwise gloomy campaign season.
Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) did something on Tuesday that has shockingly been put on the back-burner this presidential election: policy discussion.
It should be noted before I continue on with this article that, historically speaking, vice presidential debates don't really move the needle all that much. That is not to diminish or detract from the importance of the role of a vice president in executive decision-making. After all, there is a relatively low, yet realistic possibility that one of these men will be charged with the responsibility of occupying the highest political position in the world. The stakes are high.
In a campaign season filled with absurd gaffes, shameless partisanship, disqualifying scandals, blatant deceit and derogatory insults, one would ponder if the 2016 election is a failed script of the television show "House of Cards" that was thrown away for sounding too ludicrous. Unfortunately, reality often has a funny way of seeming too ridiculous to be true. It is for this reason that I was surprised to sit down and watch a tame, measured debate on substance and policy issues, something that was sorely lacking in the first presidential contest.
Anyone who took the time out of their busy Tuesday night to seriously dedicate time to watching this debate probably came away with two impressions: 1) wow, I didn’t know it was possible for a mature conversation to manifest itself in this election, and 2) boy did Pence impress.
Without trying to sound too partisan in this already highly polarized political environment, I think it is fair to say that anyone watching the debate from a neutral point of view would declare Pence the clear winner. A CNN post-debate poll of debate-watchers, which was skewed slightly Democratic, gave Pence a 48 percent to 42 percent advantage over Kaine when asked who had won the debate. I presume that further polling in the days ahead will confirm my prognostication.
Pence, from a purely analytical perspective, came across as calmer, smoother and more gracious than Tim Kaine. His responses were elegant and relaxed. He took time with his answers and brilliantly managed to deflect brutal criticism of his running mate, Donald Trump, with poignant counterarguments and effective takedowns of Tim Kaine’s running mate, Hillary Clinton. Make no mistake however, at the end of the day both candidates were sit-ins for their higher-profile running mates. Unlike the first presidential debate, this debate came across as serious and mature. Topics that alluded the first contest — immigration, nuclear proliferation, abortion, the Syrian conflict, law enforcement — made its way into the VP conversation.
That is not to say that this debate came and went without its hiccups.
Time and time again, notably in the beginning, Tim Kaine would interrupt Mike Pence to his own detriment, repeatedly having to be told by Elaine Quijano, the moderator, that time had expired. Some news organization and social media commentators even went as far to call the debate “Interruptionfest”. Kaine had over 70 interruptions or, as the political site 538 calls them, “fleeting interjections”, on Tuesday night. This lack of self awareness helped mould the notion that Kaine was stumbling over his own words and appearing flustered and uncomfortable. His jittery and overly energetic demeanor presented a marked contrast from the ultra-calm and unperturbed Pence.
Despite this rather minor criticism, it was refreshing to see two rational and informed adults talk about the issues that actually matter to normal, everyday Americans. Sure it's more flashy and arguably more politically expedient to attack your opponents personality. However, when the main headlines of a presidential election are tax returns, emails, past statements and “temperament,” it takes valuable time away from healthy discussion and debate on matters of actual importance such as taxes, foreign policy and the economy. These are the issues that will ultimately effect Americans, not whether Trump releases his tax returns or whether Hillary will ever release her 33,000 emails. What makes for good tabloid drama does not make for a healthy democracy.
Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from this debate that will set a positive precedent for the next two presidential contests. After all, these are the debates that could likely have a significant bearing on who becomes our next president. Which path will we go on from here? Substance and policy or vitriolic personality attacks and pettiness?
I’ll put my money on the latter.
Michael Piquero is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science and history. His column, “The Principled Millennial,” runs on alternate Fridays.
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