Like much of the country, Christine Joseph struggled to make it through the first presidential debate. As two White male septuagenarians hurled insults at each other, with President Trump interrupting so often that Democratic nominee Joe Biden asked him to “shut up,” she reflected on the utter dysfunction of U.S. politics: She had tuned in for some answers, eager to see Biden hold Trump accountable for the more than 210,000 Americans who have died during coronavirus.
What she got, she said, was a “train wreck.”
There was one thing that made Joseph feel a little better, she said, as she turned off her television at the end of the night: At Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) would take the stage.
“I’m going to make popcorn with extra butter and a shot of tequila on the side,” said Joseph, a Democrat based in New York City, who has gleefully watched Harris question conservative politicians in her role on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I can’t wait to see her eviscerate Mike Pence,” she said.
Last week’s debate left many Americans disillusioned. The 98-minute spectacle was “childish” and a “mockery of what a debate is supposed to be,” said Anna Perez-Mettler, based in Northern Virginia. But as some voters swear to avoid any future Trump-Biden showdowns, many say they will tune in to this week’s vice-presidential debate.
While Biden is at the top of the ticket, Harris’s debate performance has generated considerably more excitement among Democratic voters, said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, a national organization that promotes Black women in political leadership.
“We’ve seen the White guy debate before,” she said.
In the dozens of post-primary presidential and vice-presidential debates held over the course of American history, only five have included a woman: the vice-presidential debates with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, and the three presidential debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Harris will be the first Black woman or woman of color to appear on the debate stage in a general presidential election.
“When you looked at the presidential debate stage in the past, there has been no representation for someone like myself,” said Joseph, who is Black. Debates — like all of politics — have long suffered from “old White man syndrome,” she said.
But Wednesday will be different.
Watching Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father — both immigrants — Perez-Mettler said she expects she will feel a certain “satisfaction."
“I’m the daughter of immigrants myself,” she said. “So to see someone up there who looks like members of my family — it’s a moment of pride.”
The long-standing backbone of the Democratic Party, Black women have been particularly energized around Harris’s upcoming debate performance, Peeler-Allen said. The Biden campaign has recognized the moment’s unique significance for Black women: A new Biden ad, released Tuesday, shows a young Black girl watching Harris on television, then taking the stage herself.
“It’s an opportunity to show this is how Black women will lead, this is what Black women can do if you are able to move barriers out of the way,” Peeler-Allen said.
It is particularly exciting to have Harris as the torchbearer, Peeler-Allen said. Known for her powerful debate performances and sharp lines of questioning in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Harris is well positioned to challenge Pence. It will probably be a night of “zingers” fit for T-shirts and bumper stickers, Peeler-Allen said: “As soon as she was named as the vice-presidential pick, people couldn’t wait to see her debate.”
Joseph has watched Harris closely in the Senate, as she has questioned people such as Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Attorney General William P. Barr. She is “masterful” at “catching people in their own lies,” Joseph said.
In Las Vegas, Sasha Lawrence is not particularly excited to see Harris debate. She will be voting for her and Biden in November, but she is not too excited about that, either. Lawrence is a longtime Republican, who voted for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2016. Watching last week’s debate, she said, she felt embarrassed: The vice-presidential debate will be “the only one worth watching,” she says, because at least it will be “civil.”
“I think we will see a more presidential performance out of the two VPs,” she said.
In a debate, Pence will almost certainly be more “serious” than Trump, Lawrence said, avoiding the low blows that Trump frequently employed during the first debate. Harris also seems more “professional” than Biden,” she said. She hopes this debate will focus more on policy than personal attacks.
On Wednesday night, Peeler-Allen, who is Black, will be watching for the kind of microaggressions often lodged at women of color, she says. Pence’s attacks on Harris will be more measured than those coming directly from Trump. It will be important, she says, to watch how pundits respond on television and online. Harris will probably be called “angry” and “hostile” for behavior that would never attract the same criticism coming from a man.
Peeler-Allen, plans to watch the debate with her 13-year-old daughter.
“She is very excited that someone who looks like her could become the vice president of the United States.”