Debates in modern American politics are all about the headlines, not the substance. A candidate can outperform his or her opponent and still end up losing because of one ill-conceived statement. Six years ago, Kay Hagan soundly defeated Thom Tillis in a debate just weeks before the 2014 midterm election. Then, just minutes after the debate ended, she told the press that she had missed a committee vote to attend a fundraiser. That statement obscured her debate victory and dominated headlines the next day and into the stretch of the campaign.

Last night, Thom Tillis faced Democrat Cal Cunningham. While the debate seemed to be rather boring, Cunningham made a gaffe. He said that he would “be hesitant” to take a COVID-19 vaccine if it were developed before the election. Cunningham mentioned that the vaccine has become politicized. It was the wrong answer even if it was true.

He immediately got hit as an anit-vaxxer. Republicans will say that he wants the virus to continue to hurt Trump and he’s casting doubt on our government and institutions at a time when Democrats are arguing that we need to restore faith them. His phrasing was unfortunate.

In reality, Cunningham is right. There’s no way to produce a safe vaccine in the next 50 days. If one is produced, the approval process will have cut corners. No vaccine could be completed in the time necessary to test for both effectiveness and safety. AstraZeneca halted trials after someone developed serious neurological problems from their vaccine in development. A vaccine approved without proper testing could cause as many problems as the virus, especially on people who may otherwise be asymptomatic.

Cunningham needed a more nuanced answer. He should have said that he would certainly take a vaccine if it had gone through all of the proper trials for both safety and effectiveness. He could have qualified it by saying that he has concerns that the GOP is letting politics infiltrate the Center for Disease Control and FDA that could be corrupting the process. He could have even dinged Tillis for failing to intervene to prevent politics from corrupting the process. But he didn’t.

Cunningham is lucky this debate is in mid-September instead of late-October. He’ll get a few bad headlines and stories, but it will probably go away. He’s got two more debates that can overshadow what happened last night. Unfortunately, one line dominated an hour long debate, but modern debates are more about avoiding gaffes than winning arguments.   

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