Emil Guillermo: Vice Presidential debate is a peek into the future of American politics

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For me tonight’s debate reminds me of a song from 1963. You know it when you hear it. And when you see it: “Just one look, that’s all it took.”

If Veep debates were so important, we’d still be quoting lines from that memorable Pence/Kaine debate four years ago.

We’re not.

But this Veep debate is different. It’s us. And it matters.

This is a campaign season where a Covid-sick, 74-year-old, obese white male gets helicoptered to the White House, struggles up the stairs, then proudly doffs his protective face mask as he tries to catch his breath to show strength.

Once again, optics are everything—when they’re false like the president’s.

They’re even more important when the optics are true, as in the Vice Presidential debate.

That’s why all you need to know about tonight’s debate is the one wide image of the stage.

Vice President Mike Pence, the former radio talk host turned politician, is now more like the white- haired local bank teller, protected by a plexiglass screen.

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And sitting across him, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the Indian and Black woman, daughter of immigrants, behind her own plexiglass.

The two debaters are protecting each other from the virus, as Pence has been part of that likely super-spreader event introducing the Supreme Court nominee. (Should she be remembered as “Amy Covid Barrett”?)

Just looking at the stage gives you the major subtext from tonight. It’s not what’s said.

All that matters is how America reacts to that image: Pence, the ultra white conservative, and across from him Harris, the ultra person of color, the first Asian American of Indian descent, the first Black woman.

We have never seen this before in a major political debate in America.

And it is the image that looks into the future in a way that the current presidential debates can’t. Trump and Biden, two white men in their ’70s, aren’t the future America.

No, the future of America, our culture, our society, our politics, is that debate stage of Harris and Pence. Since 1989, demographers have been talking about the U.S. becoming majority minority in the year 2050. That’s been revised over time to 2030. We are less than ten years away.

How does the country, gripped by racial reckoning stemming from BLM and police violence, feel about that? That’s the reaction we need to pay attention to.

Is it embraced wholeheartedly as the evolution of our great country?

Or will some look at the stage and, out of fear, wonder if Trumpism is just a little more palatable to ward off the demographically inevitable? Does it inspire a new group of Sen. Tom Cottons to emerge and counter the rise of America’s coalition of color?

That’s where you’ll find this debate’s “Proud Boys” moment.

In 2016, the GOP had a plan ready for a full embrace of diversity. It was dealing with the demographic reality and ready to welcome the continuing surge of Hispanic voters. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was poised to be the political era’s “Golden Boy.”

But from out of nowhere came Trump. Despite the Bush legacy and more than a dozen experienced politicos, Trump got the backing of voters who felt that demographic fear. He promised walls, if not plexiglass. They gave Trump their votes. Few political pollsters saw it coming.

It hasn’t exactly worked out so well. The swamp was drained and replaced with Trump swill. Like the virus was his “blessing from God”?

And now, here we are with the future getting second billing in the Veep debate.

I wish what would be said tonight would be important. There may be a a gaffe of some sort. An odd reaction.

But Harris and Pence are decent debaters. We are likely to have a clash of ideas as is expected in debates. Of course, Pence will have an audience of one (Trump) and defend him accordingly.

Harris will be Harris. For those of us who have followed her, we know she is more fluid than not. It’s a sign of a good politician perhaps, one willing to look for solutions, rather than being intransigent. That may be how some California backers look at her mixed record as both the San Francisco DA or the state’s attorney general. I’m sure Harris will say what is needed tonight to win for the Biden-Harris team.

That’s why I don’t expect anything in their words to make a difference in a profile of voters that shows almost everyone has made up their minds. People are already voting.

That leaves only the visceral reactions. How will America respond to the look of the stage–an event moderated by a white woman, overseeing a white-haired, white male debating a woman descendant of Blacks and South Asians?

It’s our national politics beginning to look like America.

I’ll tell you who won, but first, it was yet another poorly moderated debate.

I’ve moderated debates at the state and local level (gubernatorial, senate, congressional, mayoral). I kept time, asked questions, and controlled the flow. But one thing you do a lot if you’re in control is you rein in the candidates. You say, “Time. Mr. X, time. That’s all the time. Please sir, that’s all the time. PLEASE SIR SHUT UP!!”

OK, I didn’t say the last part, but you talk the rude candidate down until they listen to you. That’s how you know you have a decent moderator. Susan Page was too timid and deferential. I was disappointed she allowed Pence to more subtly interrupt the debate by using time for other questions to backtrack.

But what did we expect? Trump and Pence don’t play by the rules.

I do know one fly sure liked Pence’s white helmet hair.

Kamala Harris was poised, polite, and refused to be lectured when talked down to by Pence. She got her qualifications out there as attorney general of California.

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And she didn’t hesitate to go after Trump on all the key points, from Covid, Trump’s $750 tax bill, Trump’s owing $400 million to someone, your taxes, and health care (pre-existing conditions).

Harris clashed and refuted everything Pence threw at her.

Pence, on the other hand, dodged, avoided, and spoke out of turn.

But my favorite misstatement was when Pence responded to Harris’ casting doubt on a rushed vaccine. “Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” said Pence unbelievably.

One of the debate’s more laughable moments.

So tonight proved Harris can handle the heat.

But is America ready for a smart, charismatic woman of color to lead?

That’s why I said at the start, the key to this debate would be the visual subtext. That first look.

The words of the debate didn’t matter as much as the image being created on stage.

There was Harris, a more qualified, more poised, more articulate woman of color, and tonight she outpointed her white male counterpart.

That’s the important takeaway.

It represents a new political reality in America that people of color from coast to coast have been waiting for.

They’re ready for the change.

Now is the rest of America?

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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