On October 8, 2020, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA), in partnership with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), co-hosted the second of a series of events on the U.S. Presidential Election. This event was held the day after the Vice Presidential Debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). Sasakawa USA and FMC welcomed The Honorable Vic Fazio (D-CA, 1979-1999) and The Honorable Luke Messer (R-IN, 2013-2019) to discuss what took place during the debate and provide insight about the two candidates. Attendees included distinguished former members of congress, members of the Washington, D.C. diplomatic corps, Japanese media and businesses, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. Bob Cusack, Editor-in-Chief at The Hill, gave opening remarks and moderated the event.
Moderated Debate Discussion
As the second of four events, Mr. Cusack began by announcing the next webinar, to be held on October 23rd. Following this announcement, Mr. Cusack introduced the panelists and asked them to provide opening remarks on their initial reactions to the debate. First, the two speakers agreed that the VP debate was not nearly as chaotic as the presidential debate, believed both candidates performed well, and remarked that both VP candidates could one day run for president but should also consider succession preparations due to the ages of both U.S. presidential candidates. Secondly, Rep. Fazio ended his comments by stating that overall, he did not think the debate would sway voters, but it was nonetheless a good opportunity for Sen. Harris to be introduced to the American people. Lastly, Rep. Messer discussed VP Pence’s performance, noting that it would not likely sway voters, but his performance could help make the Trump-Pence ticket more palatable for seniors, a demographic that typically votes Republican. Despite this normality, Rep. Messer added that VP Biden has done well in polling with seniors and overall, VP Pence presented himself as what a presidential candidate is supposed to be like, following President Trump’s chaotic performance in the last debate.
With the initial remarks concluded, Mr. Cusack moved on to ask the panelists about the candidates. He began with Sen. Harris, asking Rep. Fazio to discuss her drives, her leadership qualities, and what Americans might not know about her. First, Rep. Fazio explained that Sen. Harris comes from a very competitive political background in California. Secondly, that her family background, with both of her parents being immigrants, has led her to always fight for what she needs, while also identifying strongly with the African American community as seen with her attendance at Howard University and her membership with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. He continued, stating that Sen. Harris has gotten where she is today due to her perseverance and passion. Regarding her performance in the debate, Rep. Messer stated that although Sen. Harris performed well, he believed that VP Pence won the debate on points. Despite that, he added that Sen. Harris has shown she is a formidable opponent and will certainly have a future in politics even if President Biden is not elected.
Mr. Cusack then shifted to discuss VP Pence. He remarked that VP Pence was a rebel for many years within the Republican Party, combatting President George W. Bush on healthcare, among other things; however, today he is very loyal to President Trump. For Rep. Messer, he has extensive personal relations with VP Pence and therefore, Mr. Cusack asked him to shed some light on what he knows about the sitting vice president. Rep. Messer first explained that VP Pence is known as a class clown to his high school friends, which is hard to believe if you do not know him personally. He continued by saying that when VP Pence was in congress, he always said that he is a Christian, conservative, and a Republican in that order. Lastly, Rep. Messer added that one of VP Pence’s challenges moving forward will be the dissonance in the conservative movement with who he is now and who he was before as a party rebel.
Next, Mr. Cusack discussed that bipartisanship has not been present in congress for years; however, from President Clinton’s first term onward, the president always has control of both the house and senate in the first term and then loses it later. For 2021, he asked, what are the prospects for bipartisanship under both election scenarios? Rep. Fazio responded first by explaining that VP Biden knows the senate very well, but the outcomes of the senate elections are not quite clear yet. Rep. Fazio believes that VP Biden will want to work with Republicans in Congress, but it is unclear if Senator Mitch McConnel (R-KY) will want to work with him. He said that if Senator McConnell is unwilling to work with a President Biden, then the Democrats will likely get rid of the filibuster. His final comment was that bipartisanship is needed to do anything in U.S. government, and VP Biden will likely seek bipartisan support if he is elected.
Shifting from bipartisan issues to internal party ones, Mr. Cusack noted that the progressive movement has become very strong within the Democratic Party. One issue that seems to be splitting the party is fracking, which was brought up during the debate. With that in mind, Mr. Cusack asked the speakers to elaborate on how President Biden and VP Harris will address interparty tensions if elected. Rep. Fazio responded first by noting the long history of intraparty tensions in the Democratic Party; however long this history, he noted that today, the party has come together over a single problem, the Donald Trump presidency. He concluded his remarks by stating that most likely, following the election, fractionalization of the Democratic Party will return; however, he added although the Tea Party has seemingly taken over the Republican Party, the Moderates and Progressives of the Democratic Party are still pretty well split. Rep. Messer then agreed with most of Rep. Fazio’s comments but noted that the Progressive movement is very similar to the Tea Party movement. Rep. Fazio added that there will be some bipartisan compromise in the new administration due to the various economic issues especially due to COVID-19, but there is very little political reward for being bipartisan. Currently, he explained, the public prefers candidates who are tough over those who compromise, and until the public shifts towards compromise, candidates who are unwilling to compromise will continue to be elected. He also added that for specific issues, the unwillingness to clarify whether a Biden-Harris ticket will pursue court packing can be a detriment to their campaign in conservative states where court packing is not supported.
On the topic of court packing, Mr. Cusack noted this is a major issue that both VP Biden and Sen. Harris have been dodging. He then asked, will they be able to continue dodging this key issue? Rep. Fazio responded by noting that this is an issue that has caused tremendous frustration in the Democratic Party. It is the view of democrats that the current administration has already been packing the courts by appointing judges at all levels that don’t necessarily have the experience to fill the position, but share the administration’s ideology. He said that Republicans were terribly upset with the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia and Democrats are just as upset over the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and therefore want someone like her to replace her in the Supreme Court. He concluded his comments on this by saying that Republicans view the Supreme Court as the way to hold on for the future rather than in elections. Rep. Messer responded by saying that it would be beneficial for the Biden campaign to not stay ambiguous on court packing as it will hurt them in key competitive races as senate candidates are asked whether they support court packing.
Mr. Cusack then turned to address polls, mentioning that data for the current presidential election shows it is worse for President Trump now than it was in 2016, especially given that the Trump campaign is hobbled by COVID-19. Therefore, he asked, what does the Trump administration need to do? Mr. Cusack said that both candidates did well during the VP debate, but the Trump campaign needs a game changer, so they need to consider whether it is a smart move to not do the next debate. Next, Rep. Messer stated that President Trump defied gravity by winning the last election. Continuing, he said that everything he and Rep. Fazio know about politics from their careers shows them that if the incumbent does not have over 50% support in their reelection campaign then they are in a lot of trouble, so for President Trump to win he will have to defy gravity again and polling has to be completely wrong in every one of the states.
Mr. Cusack then asked Rep. Fazio to discuss what Democrats need to do to maintain the current level of support, noting that Hillary Clinton played it safe but in order to win, one cannot be too cautious or overly offensive. Rep Fazio responded first by stating that VP Biden and Sen. Harris will continue to campaign, travel, and push the issues such as the fact that the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death rate of any developed country in the world. Additionally, he said, Hillary Clinton taught an important lesson not to coast and to remember it is an electoral college vote, not popular vote, so key states must be paid attention to. Although Republicans are really in a deep hole and more people have not made up their minds yet this time, Rep. Fazio said the Democrats must not rest and continue to push. Rep. Messer added that major outside events have influenced the result of the election in recent elections, such as the ISIS beheading videos in 2014. These videos came out just before the election which pushed Republicans into getting more seats. Therefore, as the election nears, Rep. Messer believes close attention should be paid to similar outside events.
The final discussion was on the future of various positions in the cabinet. Mr. Cusack asked whether Rep. Fazio anticipates many of the candidates who also ran for president also being chosen for a Biden cabinet. Rep. Fazio stated that it is likely the most interesting discussion will be about who will be the Secretary of the Treasury, especially since Senator Elizabeth Warren would like to be in the administration, but overall, it will depend on the size of the majority. He remarked that Mayor Pete Buttigieg will likely be in a cabinet position somewhere, as he has become very popular and can do a lot of different things, but he does not think many will leave the senate such as Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). He added that if the Biden administration does seek out senators, they will have to think long and hard before leaving the Senate. In response, Rep. Messer pointed out that VP Biden clearly values senate experience, but as the Alabama senate race showed, choosing a senator from any state, even if it should be an easy race to replace them with someone from the same party, could lead to unforeseen problems.
Following the discussion between Rep. Messer and Rep. Fazio, Mr. Cusack then opened the Q&A. In response to the overall discussion, The Honorable Martin Frost (D-TX, 1979-2005) offered commentary on a key issue skipped by the press and others. He explained that the key issue skipped was that the debate was an opportunity for Sen. Harris to show that she is qualified to be Vice President or even President. He said that he believes the entire rest of the election will be focused on President Trump and VP Biden, but Sen. Harris passed her credibility test with flying colors. In response to The Hon. Frost’s commentary, Rep. Fazio noted that he thought she did a very good job, put forth her points well, and handled VP Pence well. He said that Sen. Harris did more than pass the test, she set herself up for future candidacy. Rep. Messer also succinctly noted that only the most partisan of people thought that one or the other was not qualified after watching the debate.
With qualifications for the presidency in mind, Mr. Cusack asked Rep. Messer, based on his close relationship with VP Pence, whether he thinks VP Pence will run for president in 2024, and how difficult it will be. Rep. Messer stated that the only reason VP Pence does not run would be for health reasons. However, he noted, the first question Republicans should ask is if President Trump does not win this year, will he run in 2024? There is the possibility that President Trump could run again, in addition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Nikki Haley. He added that he does not think President Trump will be the last person who comes out of entertainment to run for president and that it is amazing that nobody emerged out of entertainment to run for the Democratic Party this election. Rep. Fazio noted that President Trump’s family or son-in-law might also run in 2024, but special attention will need to be paid to President Trump’s legal situation in four years. Rep. Messer ended by saying that Presidents matter and leadership matters but President Trump has made economic populism part of the primary debate going forward.
The next question came from the Honorable Lawrence Smith (D-FL, 1983-1993). First, he noted that he believes strongly that the future of the U.S. is tied strongly with the future of the world and for that strong alliances are needed. On that note, he added that Sen. Harris talked about how U.S. allies are moving away, yet President Trump and VP Pence have never answered questions about why U.S. allies are looking for new alliances. He asked the panel to discuss their thoughts on this issue and what it means for the future of U.S. leadership in the free world. First, Rep. Messer responded by explaining that he comes from the traditional perspective. This perspective believes that the U.S. has to hug allies close and be tough and strong against enemies. He noted, however, that there is a sentiment in the U.S. that the U.S. is too engaged throughout the world, and as politicians and experts lament as President Trump makes unconventional statements, there is a large portion of the population that agrees with him. Rep. Fazio also noted that isolationism runs deep in the U.S. and the further removed from major wars the more difficult it becomes to remember how the U.S. won those wars with allies. Additionally, he said, climate change and COVID-19 prove that the U.S. needs to be part of an international coalition, especially if the U.S. wants to be part of the solution for the future. He ended by saying that he thinks Americans do not want to be involved so much overseas but also do not want to see China or Russia taking over.
Next, Mr. Cusack asked the panelists what VP Pence’s impact has been on the current administration, noting that he does not get a lot of attention as networks tend to pull away when he is on the scene. Rep. Messer first responded by quickly saying that personnel is policy, and who is appointed to different positions impacts policy. So, he continued, if there is a Biden administration, the number of progressives who are appointed needs to be examined. Given that VP Pence was a darling of the conservative movement and read all the policy books and briefing papers, Rep. Messer added that he has been able to push his policy agenda especially given that President Trump does not seem to care for these things.
The final question was asked by the Honorable Martin Lancaster (D-NC, 1987-1995). He asked the speakers to discuss how Washington, congress especially, can return to the same sort of civil discussion that was seen in the VP debate. Rep. Fazio responded first by noting that former members of congress are doing what they can to change what is happening in Washington and hopes that this work will translate to sitting members, but it is really up to the people, but media echo chambers do not help this cause. Rep. Messer agreed and said that leaders matter and provided the example of VP Pence’s radio show where VP Pence contrasted himself against Rush Limbaugh by saying that he is a conservative but not angry about it. He said the last several presidential candidates do not deserve a pass on this issue, but he does believe that VP Biden does understand that there are good people worth working with on the other side which will be interesting to see in a Biden presidency. Lastly, Rep. Fazio remarked that based on Rep. Messer’s points, he believes there will be republicans who are appointed in a Biden administration. With these final comments, Mr. Cusack concluded the event, thanking all those in attendance.
Sasakawa USA is grateful to Rep. Fazio and Rep. Messer for participating in this discussion and to Mr. Cusack for moderating this event.
Summarized by Benjie Canady, Associate Program Officer, Sasakawa USA
For information on Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series, go here.