Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Welcome to the FT’s second US debate “watch along” with our Swamp Notes columnists Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce, with me serving as your unofficial ringleader. Truth be told, we were initially going to skip the vice-presidential debate — historically, these duels have had far less impact on the election result than debates between the candidates at the top of the ticket — but Donald Trump’s recent coronavirus diagnosis forced us to rethink things.

First, there is now a chance this could be the final debate of the race. Because the president’s health remains uncertain, we just don’t know for sure whether his next scheduled standoff with Joe Biden will go ahead next week. Although Trump has sought to project robust health since being discharged from Walter Reed on Monday, and his campaign insists he will travel to Miami, what we know from other leaders who have come down with the virus, including Britain’s Boris Johnson, is that full recovery from coronavirus can include an extended convalescence.

Secondly, and slightly more delicately, is the fact that by contracting Covid-19, Trump thrust the mortality (and age) of both septuagenarian presidential candidates into voters’ consciousness. As the old cliche goes, the vice-president is just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, and in the age of coronavirus, the focus on both Mike Pence and Kamala Harris is a bit more intense than on running mates in previous election years.

Finally, we just got a huge favourable response to our first foray into debate liveblogging last week. And here at the FT, we always give the readers what they want! So buckle up. We expect tonight’s debate will be a bit less combustible than the Biden-Trump shootout — but then again, most Michael Bay films are less combustible than the Biden-Trump shootout.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Vice-presidential debates have been far less memorable than presidential duels since the first one was held in 1976 between Jimmy Carter’s running-mate, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, and incumbent Gerald Ford’s, Kansas Senator Robert Dole. Still, some had their moments, and the following are my top five. To be honest, it’s hard to really find five (it’s more like two with a few middling incidents) but all lists have to be in fives, so I’ll have a go:

1 — “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” 1988
It remains the most memorable line ever uttered in a vice-presidential debate — and there’s a case to be made it’s the biggest zinger ever delivered in any modern US political debate. After Republican Dan Quayle suggested he had the same amount of congressional experience as John Kennedy did when the martyred president ran in 1960, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen unloaded a line for the ages: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” There was some question post-mortem whether Bentsen really was a friend of Kennedy’s or more of a passing acquaintance. Still, the line haunted Quayle for the rest of his political career — even if his ticket did win the White House.

2 — “Who am I? Why am I here?”, 1992
I remember watching this one live and laughing out loud. But in retrospect, it’s a great shame Vice-Admiral James Stockdale, a decorated Vietnam war hero who received the Medal of Honour after spending seven years as a prisoner in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, will be remembered for his bumbling debate performance in 1992. He was Ross Perot’s provisional pick for VP on the businessman’s independent ticket, but was never replaced with a more seasoned political operator — so found himself in over his head in a three-way debate with incumbent Quayle and Democrat Al Gore. He introduced himself with the now-famous questions and it was downhill from there.

3 — Joe Biden vs Sarah Palin, 2008
The remaining three top-five moments involve a bit of cheating. The 2008 VP debate itself wasn’t particularly memorable in and of itself. But it served as the jumping-off point for comedian Tina Fey’s legendary impression of Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Palin’s personality became so intertwined with Fey in the public consciousness that she is sometimes accused of uttering a phrase that was actually coined by Fey: “I can see Russia from my house!” Fey portrayed Palin in an earlier episode of Saturday Night Live, but this debate parody cemented the image.

4 — “Democrat wars”, 1976
Dole was one of the few VP candidates to run on a ticket with a sitting president while not being the incumbent (the liberal Nelson Rockefeller was dropped by Ford so he could shore up his right flank against a challenge by a consevative California governor named Ronald Reagan). Although Dole’s 1976 debate performance was just a footnote in Ford’s unsuccessful re-election campaign, it would haunt the Kansan for years, reinforcing his image as a hatchet man. When asked about Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Dole turned it into a criticism of “Democrat wars” — including the second world war — accusing the party of being responsible for all 20th century American casualties.

5 — “Kick a little ass,” 1984
Before the debate, there was much discussion about how tough incumbent George HW Bush could be facing the first woman to be nominated vice-president by a major US political party, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. The debate itself was largely uneventful, but it was Bush’s comments the day after that would earn a historical note: he was caught on a live microphone telling supporters he had “tried to kick a little ass last night”. Very un-Bushian.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Tonight for the first time in US debating history, the candidates will be separated by a plane of plexiglass and at a distance of 12 feet and 3 inches.

I still don’t know what that 3 inches is about. But it is safe to say that this novel social distancing arrangement will feature at some point early into the debate.

Pence’s team said such precautions were unnecessary. Harris’s team insisted that the vice-president had been exposed to coronavirus within the last few days and thus posed a contagion risk. My bet is that Harris will use the screen as a prop to point out that Pence is head of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force yet it could not prevent the president from getting infected. I would hope for her sake that she does not claim Pence still poses a danger to her, which would risk stretching the point.

After last week’s debacle between Trump and Biden, we can assume that everyone at the Salt Lake City venue will arrive wearing masks, and that everyone, barring the candidates and moderator, will keep them on for the duration. Should anyone in the Veep’s entourage fail to do so, Harris is likely to make a thing out of it. She will certainly make an issue of Trump’s continued disdain for social distancing. As the Democrats know, Trump’s biggest weakness is his record on managing this pandemic. Harris will try to summon all her prosecutorial skills to press that point home.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

One of the best things about Kamala Harris is that she hits to a lot of fields — she’s a strong and articulate African American prosecutor, a terrific speaker, and a veteran politico who can duke it out with the best of them.

She’s a great campaign fundraiser (too great, some progressives would say), and is beloved of many rich Democrats in the business wing of the party. But she has also been aggressive in pushing for things like healthcare reform and antitrust action in the health sector in particular.

Harris is smart enough to know the right policy choices that Democrats need to make right now (which centre around fighting inequality, strengthening safety nets, improving education and building some kind of New Deal-style programme that puts people to work and transitions the economy to something cleaner, greener and more digital).

But she has also been smart enough to stay in the political game without having the kind of grassroots support that Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders do. That means she has had to make uncomfortable compromises. She has taken campaign money from the prison industrial complex; not a good look in the midst of the Black Lives Matter and “defund the police” issues.

She has gone light on certain financiers like Steve Mnuchin, whose bank she failed to prosecute in the wake of the financial crisis.

She’s close to Big Tech, even as the Democrat-led House Judiciary committee on antitrust has just come out with a tough new report calling Amazon, Google and Facebook the biggest competitive threat since the railroad barons.

None of this makes her a bad candidate per se. But it does show the incredible bind that any middle of the road candidate today is in because of America’s perverse political money culture — raise money and stay in the game, but also get bashed for not being “with the people”. I hope we get to hear her thoughts on what she’d do to fix that.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

If you asked the “low information voter” one thing they know about Mike Pence, my bet is they would say that the only woman with whom he will dine alone is his wife.

What Pence originally added in 2002 was that he would not attend any event that includes alcohol unless his wife and “prayer warrior”, Karen Pence, was there too. For Pence’s debate preparation, he has chosen a male, Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin, to play Harris. Usually there is some resemblance between the person performing that role and the actual opponent, such as their gender.

In 2008, for example, the then vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden had Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, play Sarah Palin. It seemed to work out well. Biden more than held his own in that single encounter.

Tonight Pence will be on stage alone with two women - his opponent, Kamala Harris, and the moderator, Susan Page. I wonder whether Harris will be tempted to play on that. “You and I should have dinner some time Mr Vice-President,” or words to that effect.

Failing that, the issue of religion is bound to come up. Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court nominee, is refusing to disclose her stance on Roe V Wade or on Obamacare, according to leaks from her Senate calls. Harris will want to hammer that home.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

As Swamp Notes readers will know, I grew up in rural Indiana, in Frankfort — home of the Hot Dogs (can you tell a lot of German immigrants settled here?).

The Indiana of my youth was a lot like Mike Pence — white, religious, conservative. Churches were numerous, dinner was early, corporal punishment was administered in schools with no complaints from either parents or kids, and Republicans ruled, at least in my community — I remember being taken on a grade school field trip that turned out to be a campaign rally for the Republican attorney general (we all waved signs for him).

But Indiana has changed. It has become much more diverse, with many of the Hispanic farmworkers who might have once been migrant laborers settling and starting businesses and building communities, bringing new entrepreneurial zeal to the area.

Immigrant-owned companies from outside the US are also helping spur major job growth in the state. Infosys, a major Indian tech firm, has put thousands of new jobs in the state, capitalising on the fact that labour is still relatively cheap and educational standards higher (still) than in some emerging markets

I’d like to know what Pence would say about building walls and restricting immigration into the US at a time when it’s one of the few things keeping his own state afloat. The Indiana he once governed has changed — but has he?

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Edward Luce, US National Editor

For the 80 million or so Americans who watched last week’s presidential debate, the Harris-Pence face off is likely to prove something of an anti-climax.

Though Harris relishes going for the jugular — as many prosecutors do — Pence is the opposite of his boss: I have yet to see his expression of marbled serenity waver. Pence is the oil on troubled Trumpian waters. If the debate goes badly for him tonight, which I doubt, it will not be because he lost his cool.

My bet is that it will change little. Though many have pointed out that the vice-presidential debate will be unusually important because of Biden’s age, 77, and Trump’s health and age, 74 and sick with coronavirus, it is unlikely to distract for long from the drama between the principals.

As with the presidential debates, most of the risk here is to Harris, since she represents the frontrunner. The only real potential for upset is if Harris flounders dramatically. That cannot be ruled out. Her performance in the primary debates last year was patchy, whereas Pence is a smooth and experienced operator. Watch carefully for how Harris responds to any attacks on her prosecutorial record in California. There is enough material there to put her on the defensive.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

One of the many problems of having Donald Trump in office is his black hole-like ability to absorb all debate about real political issues — big or small — and turn them into commentaries on himself. But without his booming voice and lurking presence, the VP debates could be an interesting moment to see what the post-Trump Republican Party is offering — as well as how the Democrats have changed in reaction to the president.

Republicans strike me at the moment as a kind of death cult that decided at some point that it was worth selling out any moral principle in order to secure a few Supreme Court judges. They’ve always been better at the long game than Democrats. But this time around, I don’t think it has worked for them, as it could take a generation for the Party to rebuild itself into something worth supporting. My big question is what will the next generation of Republican leaders focus on? Industrial policy a la Rubio? National security in the face of a new Cold War with China? What will their defining economic policy be now that it’s so clear that neoliberalism is tapped out?

Democrats, on the other hand, need to start articulating why people should support them beyond the fact that we can’t have another term of Donald Trump. What has the left learned from the Obama years? Do they understand that Trump didn’t just rise to office because of Republican cynicism and exploitation with public discontent (either around culture or the economy) but also because Democrats abandoned the working class and made poor choices around trade, China, protecting the industrial ecosystem and defending American workers?

Both sides need to articulate a future vision — I’m hoping we may get a few hints of it tonight.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Rana... I'm going to take advantage of your specialist Indiana knowledge here. As you mentioned, the state is much different from the one you and Pence grew up in. Much more diverse, for one thing.

I also remember he wasn't a hugely popular governor when he left to join Trump's ticket. It was almost like he knew he wasn't going to be re-elected in Indiana, so he wanted to get out of Dodge. Or Indianapolis. Is that a fair analysis?

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Yeah, I think that's fair. Indiana often goes Republican, in part because of a growing Latino population (which as you and I have talked about on our election video series, tend to be more conservative) as well as a large number of evangelical folks.

There's also sort of a Pennsylvania vibe going where there are some working class whites who are resentful about outsourcing and the inability of those with only a high school degree to get jobs. They are also worried about the growing vibrancy of the Latino community, relative to their own decline. Those folks could swing Trump (as they did in my county, which went 75 per cent for the president last time) or Bernie Sanders. But Pence isn't really their guy.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Well, if Pence symbolises Indiana conservatism, than Harris is truly a child of modern California, the first US state to become "majority minority". By some estimates, whites are now only the second largest demographic group in the state, with huge percentages of Latinos and Asians. As Ed notes, Harris is both African-American and Indian-American, and her parents were both immigrants to the US. Very California.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

And while I'm talking demographics, it's also worth noting that Harris was born in 1964, making her the first Gen-X candidate to run on a national ticket (if you consider the Kennedy assassination as the end of the Baby Boom). Her fellow Gen-Xers (like the three of us) have been in mourning for Eddie Van Halen this week. The soundtrack of my high school years!

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

I see from the press pool that Pence's team is continuing the unpleasant tradition (started by Trump in 2016) of bringing guests to the debate intended to rattle the opposition. According to the pool report, they include Flora Westbrooks, whose hair studio was destroyed in unrest in Minneapolis, and the parents of Kayla Mueller, an American killed as a hostage in Syria while Obama was president. Ann Dorn, widow of a retired police officer killed in St Louis violence after killing of George Floyd, is also there. Mueller's parents and Dorn got prominent slots at the Republican convention, too. Does this kind of thing really help endear Pence with voters? Seems a bit crass for someone as mild-mannered as Pence.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

I suppose it's meant to service the base. For Pence it's a difficult moment though. He would like to be the GOP favourite for 2024 whether Trump wins or loses next month. That means he must put a little bit of daylight between him and Trump. He has to be able to salvage himself from what is increasingly looking like a Trump wreckage next month. The manner in which he defends his boss while subtly differentiating his brand of Christian conservatism will be interesting to watch. Having guests such as those you've listed, Peter, is clearly a decision that came from the Trump team.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Ed... I was just thinking the same thing. There's a decent chance we see BOTH of them on the debate stage in four years at the top of the ticket, even if Biden wins (he could hang it up after one term).

As you said, Ed, this could have a particularly strong effect on Pence. If he's thinking Trump is a sinking ship right now, he may be prone to start distancing himself ahead of the 2024 race. Politicians tend to think of their own viability first and foremost.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Gosh, I would find it really hard to imagine Pence being the guy who pulls things together for Republicans post-Trump. I feel like he's just a bridge to the next generation. If I were were a Republican strategist, I'd be thinking of someone like Marco Rubio, who has demographics/policy ideas that appeal to both left and right (like industrial policy).

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

I'm just watching the TV pictures of people arriving in the debate hall in Salt Lake City. It's so weird. Family members sitting with pink face masks, all sitting in chairs several feet from each other. Very different from last week's debate theatrically. That can't help Pence... like the plexiglass Ed wrote about below, it reminds people that Trump may have had Covid-19 in Cleveland.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

I'm not sure why the Trump campaign thinks the accusation that Biden and Harris are "playing politics" with the vaccine is an effective line. It's clearly not what Harris was arguing, and I don't think people are fooled. Also, Pence is dodging a tough question about what arrangement (if any) he has with Trump to take over if the president falls ill.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Biggest lie of the debate so far — Pence says 2021 will be the "biggest economic year" in the history of our country. Although I guess if you consider that biggest doesn't have to mean best it could be true. I suspect it will take till 2022 for growth to get back to pre Covid levels and unemployment levels will take longer than that.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Speaking of the auto industry, I really hope that if Biden wins we don't get someone like Rattner at Treasury. The cabinet needs to stake out a post neo-liberal position for the Democrats, and make it clear that we are moving beyond the Clintonian economic policies that were more about Wall Street than Main Street. My vote would be for Warren at Treasury

Edward Luce, US National Editor

I see a lot of people on Twitter are describing this debate as boring, including some highly reputable policy types. This is more of a reflection on how drastically mores have changed in the last four years and how US politics has been colonised by game show television. For what it's worth, I appreciate the boringness of this debate — it allows space for substantive points to be made. We should celebrate that even as we note the far lower TV ratings.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

The fact of the matter is that the Obama foreign policy record leaves a lot of room for criticism, so Pence's criticism is pretty effective here. His failure to follow through on Syria is his signature foreign policy failure that undermined American credibility abroad. Biden also has a long record on foreign affairs that rightfully has a lot of critics.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Right. Also, it must be said that the Obama administration had all the same complaints with China but was never going to rock the boat (in part because no CEO wanted to put their name to IP theft issues or WTO complaints for fear of losing access to the market).

Trump blew things up in a way that was counterproductive. But he also shone a light on the untenability of the current system.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

I'll bring up the same issue here that I did during last week's brief, chaotic discussion of Amy Coney Barrett during the Biden-Trump debate: I'm pretty surprised that neither Biden nor Trump have spent much time or energy arguing the case for their election based on the Supreme Court. I'm still not sure why Coney Barrett hasn't generated more heat. Maybe because there's so much else to generate heat?

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Again, neither Pence nor Harris seem to want to engage on the issues when it comes to Coney Barrett. Neither want to talk about abortion. I think the issue works better for Democrats... it splits suburban women away from the Republican party... but I'm still surprised neither are saying "choice" or "life" or any of those code words that have animated Supreme Court campaigns in the past.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

I agree that it unwise to talk of court packing before an election - and Biden is wise to say he wouldn't (although he's not being as adamant today as he was during the primaries). But the threat of packing itself could give Chief Justice Roberts, and other institutionalists, pause for thought. Without the change in the 1937 Supreme Court, there would have been barely any New Deal.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Well, I have to say, I feel heartened by the past 90 minutes. My takeaways are that Harris and Pence are visceral reflections of the coming demographic shifts in the country, in age and race.

I think Harris won, but not by a lot as a debater — Pence did better on that front than I expected (but my expectations were low). I wish that it were easier to message Democratic policies around growth — talking about infrastructure and Green New Deals and such in a sexy way is hard.

One big takeaway for me is that Kamala Harris seems to float above gender in a way that no other female candidate that I've seen does. She's feminine and confident and you just don't think much about the fact that she's a woman. Or at least I didn't. Perfect!

Edward Luce, US National Editor

I enjoyed the vice-presidential debate and its contrast with last week's horrific display by the president in the first debate with Biden. It reminds us, and hopefully some American voters, that it is possible to have reasonably substantive exchanges without descending into barbarity (I am thinking, in particular, about Trump's comments on Biden's two sons, the late Beau Biden, and Hunter, but plenty more besides).

Will it change the election? No. Which means it was a victory for Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. All she needed to do was not make news or change the narrative.

It would take an asteroid, or perhaps a war, to change the focus of the 2020 election at this point. This election is by Donald Trump, for Donald Trump and of Donald Trump. Biden would like to keep it that way. So would Donald Trump.

Kamala Harris's job was to ensure that the election remains a referendum on Trump. She did her job effectively and methodically. Mike Pence did as good a job as he could have under the circumstances. But even the most felicitous debators would have struggled with material like that. We can now return our focus to the meat of the election. This was an absorbing non-event.

As ever, I much enjoyed Rana and Peter's commentary and company, even if both were egregiously avoiding wine this evening.

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