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5 winners and 3 losers from the vice presidential debate

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Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Vice President Mike Pence faced off in their one and only debate of the 2020 presidential election in at the University of Utah on Wednesday, and the backdrop was a stark one.

The president of the United States, the first lady, and more than a dozen people in their orbit have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days, and the scope of how many people connected to that cluster who may have been infected with the disease remains unknown. More than 210,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, millions have been infected, and multiple states are seeing new case surges. Meanwhile, fiscal stimulus efforts from the federal government have largely dried up, and it remains unclear what, if anything, the administration and Congress plan to do about it.

USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page moderated the vice presidential debate held in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Harris, the running mate of former Vice President Joe Biden, attempted to draw attention to the current reality in America and the White House’s role in it: President Trump has privately admitted to his understanding of the seriousness of the virus long before it was public, and many people are facing devastation that perhaps could have been avoided. Pence sought to amend the administration’s record, even where sometimes difficult to defend. With a deadly virus spreading, including within the presidential administration, it was hard not to question why there was even an in-person debate taking place at all.

How much do vice presidential candidates and debates matter? Generally, not a lot. And given what’s happening in the broader context — and at the top of the ticket — it’s not clear much of Wednesday’s back-and-forth will break through. It felt like a much more typical political debate than the presidential one: Both participants came with their talking points and delivered them. At the very least, the vice presidential debate was less … interrupty than last week’s.

Here are some winners and losers of the night.

Winner: Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris came into the night representing a campaign that appears to be winning. Joe Biden is leading handily in the polls less than a month to the election, and if anything, the campaign appears to be gaining steam.

Pence delivered a solid performance — the type you would expect of a moderately successful Republican politician in the pre-Trump era — that may have put some undecided moderates at ease. He spoke in complete sentences, delivered some decent hits, and managed to defend the administration’s record, even if misleadingly. But he’s not at the top of the ticket — Donald Trump is. The guy who seems determined to make things worse in the country at every turn and has spent the past 24 hours on quite a Twitter tear.

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the vice presidential debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Harris delivered a solid, smart performance that reminded the American people of what’s happening and what’s at stake. She is a compelling person and a powerful speaker, and she leaned into that as she often spoke directly to camera.

“They still don’t have a plan. Joe Biden does,” she said at the outset of the night when discussing the administration’s coronavirus response.

Harris may have at times seemed to have been sucked into Pence’s frame, but by and large, she held her own. As a Black and Asian American woman, she also faces a different set of standards than white men do.

The polls will ultimately show what Harris’s performance did or did not accomplish. But in an election where women voters — who broadly prefer the Biden/Harris ticket — are going to be a powerful force in deciding the election, her appearance certainly spoke to a decent set of the population. In multiple moments throughout the night, Pence sought to speak over her or interrupt her, an all-too-familiar situation for many women. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation. Okay? Okay,” she said at one point. It was a reminder of why so many women are mobilized against guys like Pence right now.

—Emily Stewart

Winner: Covid-19

If basic precautions around Covid-19 were being followed, this vice presidential debate wouldn’t be happening.

In fact, Pence probably wouldn’t be leaving his home at all. He would be in quarantine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are clear: If a person comes into close contact with someone known to have a coronavirus infection, defined as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, that person should get a test and quarantine for 14 days. The CDC says the person should quarantine for the two full weeks even if they test negative and don’t develop symptoms.

The guidelines acknowledge the realities that people can still spread the coronavirus even if they don’t show any symptoms, and that tests aren’t perfectly accurate, at times producing false negatives. As the CDC notes, “A single negative test does not mean you will remain negative at any time point after that test.”

Plexiglass barriers were installed between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence during the debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Given that the White House is now seeing a large Covid-19 outbreak (with the infected ranging from Trump himself to a presidential valet), and that Pence does daily work in the White House, it sure seems Pence shouldn’t be on the stage. Pence’s team has argued around technicalities about the definition of a “close contact” and whether Pence meets that definition. But that hasn’t swayed experts, who have continued to argue that the debate should have gone virtual.

The presidential commission responded by setting up plexiglass barriers between the candidates. But that didn’t do much to comfort experts. As Columbia virologist Angela Rasmussen said on Twitter, “The plexiglass really brings this laughably inadequate infection control theater set together.”

The result is not just that the people onstage were at heightened risk of Covid-19, but the whole event set a bad example to the rest of the country — at a time when experts say we need consistent leadership, leading by example, on the coronavirus.

—German Lopez

Loser: Infrastructure week

Infrastructure week, we barely knew ye.

Fixing America’s infrastructure has long been one of the few priorities that Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree needs fixing. When Trump was first campaigning for president in 2016, he promised to repair the country’s “crumbling” roads and bridges.

On Wednesday, Harris emphasized Biden had “a plan that is about investing in infrastructure, something [Trump] said he would do.”

“I don’t think it ever happened,” she added.

Harris is right. Infrastructure week could have been a bipartisan win for Trump and Democrats alike. But somehow, it has always been a loser. Over the last four years, infrastructure week has become a running joke among staffers in Washington, usually a signal another Trump-related scandal was about to erupt.

Trump had multiple opportunities to pass an infrastructure bill. When he was first elected, Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, but the GOP could not agree on the scope and size of an infrastructure plan. When Democrats won in the 2018 midterms, they did it in large part owing to moderate candidates who ran on pragmatic issues including health care and infrastructure.

Under the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump briefly agreed to a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal from House Democrats in April 2019. That lasted a matter of weeks, as Trump soon after became enraged by Democrats’ investigations into his finances and his campaign’s contacts with Russia in 2016.

Any hopes for actually making progress on infrastructure became eclipsed by Trump’s own scandals and bickering with Democrats.

— Ella Nilsen

Winner: Boringness

Mike Pence is boring. A longtime radio host before he entered Congress, he was known for how “pleasant” and unobjectionable he was. He himself described his radio persona as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” That dullness may be one reason (though not the only one) why Pence was never a viable presidential candidate in his own right.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice presidential debate.
Justin Sullivan-Pool/AFP via Getty Images

But on Wednesday night, Pence’s boringness was a strength. The vice president was coming off not just last week’s presidential debate, during which President Trump was unable to rein in his constant interruptions and sniping, but Trump’s subsequent Covid-19 diagnosis and days of increasingly bizarre tweetstorms containing all-caps word salad. The pressure to seem halfway normal was high. And by cogently stating Republican talking points, in ways that might have seemed colorless in another time, Pence ended up looking like a polished statesman compared to Trump.

It’s not clear how much Pence’s demeanor, or his criticisms of the Paris accords, the Green New Deal, or Joe Biden’s tax plan, will change the minds of American voters. But Pence may have reassured some people that there is at least one person in the Trump administration — currently battling a raging Covid outbreak and questions about whether the president is being mentally affected by his treatment for the illness — who can calmly explain conservative political positions.

On Wednesday, Trump was tweeting about a “TREASONOUS PLOT” by Biden and “CROOKED HILLARY,” while still recovering from Covid-19. He has repeatedly refused isolation even as he may still be contagious. Pence, meanwhile, slowly and earnestly warned Americans that “Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes.” It may not be enough to make up Trump’s deficit in the polls, but some Republicans and independents may have breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday night: in perhaps the most chaotic week of an incredibly chaotic year, at least somebody in the administration was boring.

Anna North

Winner: #KHive

The #KHive, some of Kamala Harris’s most devoted supporters, had their moment during the debate this week.

A collection of fans and organizers who have long amplified and defended Harris both online and off, many were deeply moved by her historic nomination — and enthused by her landmark appearance onstage in Salt Lake City.

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the vice presidential debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Accounts using the #Khive Twitter hashtag criticized Pence’s interruptions, shared memes about Harris’s facial reactions and spread gifs responding to the debate throughout the night.

As HuffPost reported, it’s worth noting that there are members of the #KHive who have perpetuated online harassment in the past — and that the posts associated with the group haven’t always been positive.

But Wednesday’s debate presented an opportunity for some #KHive supporters to celebrate how far their candidate had come.

— Li Zhou

Loser: The sick, the dead, and the unemployed

Ultimately, politics are about people and what is happening to them in their everyday lives. And what millions of people are experiencing in the United States right now is awful.

Right now, the US is losing to Covid-19 on multiple fronts. Lawmakers and leaders have been arguing about how to weigh health vs. the economy in devising a response to the pandemic, and ultimately, the country appears to have chosen neither.

An EMS medic checks the temperature of a possible COVID-19 patient before transporting him to the hospital in Houston, Texas, on August 13.
John Moore/Getty Images

In Wisconsin, one of the swing states that decided the 2016 election, the coronavirus is raging. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and the governor has authorized a field hospital at state fairgrounds to try to treat overflow patients. Across the country, tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases continue to be reported each day, and hundreds of people are dying daily.

And on the economic front, while the economy is better than it was in the spring, the recovery appears to be starting to stall, and it’s happening unevenly. The unemployment rate has continued to fall, but white workers are doing much better than Black and Latino workers. Jobs are being added at a slower pace than in prior months, and many people — namely, women — are dropping out of the workforce. It’s not safe to reopen schools, and the burden is falling disproportionately on women in particular who are leaving their jobs to support distance learning. The extra $600 in federal unemployment insurance dried up at the end of July, and stimulus talks are all over the place.

The headlines and day-to-day politics in America make it easy to forget about what’s happening on the ground. The president is sick, but so are thousands of ordinary people who will never make the news, not to mention those who died of the disease who maybe will manage an obituary in the local paper. The president got to take a few days in the hospital to recover from illness without retribution from his job, it’s not an option for everyone.

In 2020, ordinary American people are losing.

— ES

Loser: Susan Page

It was a little unclear before the Vice Presidential debate whether USA Today journalist Susan Page should be moderating it. Page had thrown an off-the-record party celebrating two Trump administration appointees, including Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma, who billed the government for services related to the event. Verma was recruited into the Trump administration after serving in a similar role in Indiana for then-governor Mike Pence. It seemed … odd, to say the least, to have a journalist who had recently partied with a close Pence associate moderating a debate featuring him, even if the party was the non-partisan celebration of women in government that Page and USA Today claimed it was.

USA Today Washington Bureau chief Susan Page arrives to moderate the vice presidential debate.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

But after the debate, it’s obvious that Page had no business moderating it. Page spent the better part of the evening simply reading questions off a piece of paper, and loosing enforcing time limits between Harris and Pence. Look: I’m a reporter too, and I have absolutely done the interviews where you write down ten questions beforehand and run through them as fast as you can, because the interview is boring. But that’s not exactly best practices, and it’s certainly not how anyone should behave when interviewing the Vice President and a US Senator.

The biggest cost of this strategy was that Page simply kept letting the candidates not answer the questions she had posed. Pence rightly pointed out that Harris dodged a question about courtpacking — but Pence had totally dodged Page’s question asking if he’d support a state-level ban on abortions in Indiana, should Roe v. Wade be overturned. Pence dodged a question about whether he would commit to a “peaceful transfer of power,” and not only did Page let him, but she refused to allow Harris to respond when Pence preposterously claimed that Trump was impeached “over a phone call” (I mean, I suppose a mob boss who ordered a hit on his cell phone could be “convicted of murder for a phone call” too). Both candidates dodged a question about the age and health of their running mate.

Moderating debates is hardly easy, and it would have been difficult for even the most seasoned fact-checker or moderator to force the candidates to conduct an accurate, fair discussion. But it’s not impossible to make them answer the questions put before them. Page failed at that incredibly basic task.

Dylan Matthews

Winner: The fly

A fly rests on the head of Vice President Mike Pence during the debate.
Eric Bardat/AFP via Getty Images

There was a fly. It flew around and landed on Pence’s head for a while. Everything is bad, and it was fun, normal, harmless reprieve. There were many memes and jokes online. Hope whoever he is and wherever he is, he survives the evening and has a nice time.

— ES

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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