By the standards set by President Trump at his debate with Joseph R. Biden Jr., the matchup on Wednesday night between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence was almost civil. Almost.
They offered contrasting visions of how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. They talked about China, the economy and the unrest in response to police abuses.
They were as likely not to answer a question as to answer one — though in this case, Mr. Pence was probably the winner. Even by the standards of modern debates, Mr. Pence ignored questions he presumably did not want to answer and often spoke over Ms. Harris and the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, though at considerably less volume than Mr. Trump.
But there was no shortage of revealing and noteworthy moments.
Harris swiftly attacks Pence on the coronavirus.
‘Greatest Failure,’ Harris Calls Trump’s Coronavirus Response
At Wednesday night’s debate, Senator Kamala Harris called President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus a cover-up and said he should have acted earlier.
Well, the American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country. And here are the facts: 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months. Over 7 million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed. We’re looking at frontline workers who have been treated like sacrificial workers. We are looking at over 30 million people who in the last several months had to file for unemployment. And here’s the thing: On Jan. 28, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic. They were informed that it’s lethal in consequence, that it is airborne, that it will affect young people, and that it would be contracted because it is airborne. And they knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you. Can you imagine if you knew on Jan. 28 as opposed to March 13 what they knew, what you might have done to prepare? They knew and they covered it up.
The first answer from Ms. Harris was a window into the strategy of Mr. Biden’s campaign: all Covid-19, all the time.
The campaign believes the pandemic response encapsulates every unpopular part of Mr. Trump’s administration, and Ms. Harris opened the debate by focusing on the federal government’s response to the virus. She was unrelenting, evoking memories of the Democratic presidential primary race, when she promised to “prosecute the case against Donald Trump.”
The early attack on the virus was also significant for media markets. With the debate starting at 9 p.m. Eastern, both campaigns will have known that the early moments are critical for newspaper deadlines and audience ratings, because live viewership tends to drop as the evening goes on.
With Ms. Harris making the pandemic response her first answer, she focused her energy on the issue her campaign is zeroed in on.
Pence hits back on the pandemic.
Pence Defends Trump’s Response to Coronavirus
Vice President Mike Pence applauded President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
“From the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first. Before there were more than five cases in the United States, all people who had returned from China, President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done. And that was, he suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world. And under President Trump’s leadership, Operation Warp Speed, we believe we’ll have literally tens of millions of doses of a vaccine before the end of this year. The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way. And quite frankly, when I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating new P.P.E., developing a vaccine, it looks a little bit like plagiarism.” “Vice President Pence, you were in the front row in a Rose Garden event 11 days ago, at what seems to have been a super-spreader event for senior administration and congressional officials. No social distancing, few masks, and now a cluster of coronavirus cases among those who were there. How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from Covid when you at the White House have not been doing so?” “Well, the American people have demonstrated over the last eight months that when given the facts, they’re willing to put the health of their families and their neighbors and people they don’t even know first. President Trump and I have great confidence in the American people and in their ability to take that information and put it into practice. At that, if I may say, that Rose Garden event, been a great deal of speculation about it. My wife, Karen, and I were there and honored to be there. Many of the people who were at that event, Susan, actually were tested —” “Yes.” “— for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise. The difference here is, President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interests of their health.”
Mr. Pence responded to Ms. Harris’s criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic by talking about the partial ban on travel from China that Mr. Trump put in place early this year, when the virus was beginning to spread to the United States, and about efforts to fast-track a vaccine.
But the vice president expressed no regret about being part of the White House nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court, where attendees were packed together, many not wearing masks. Among the maskless: Mr. Trump, who later tested positive for the virus, and Mr. Pence, who is the head of the White House task force on the coronavirus. Mr. Pence has tested negative for the virus.
That event on Sept. 26, especially a reception inside the White House, is now seen as a superspreader event, responsible for a surge of coronavirus cases at the highest levels of the federal government.
Mr. Pence dismissed the notion that he and the president had set a bad example for Americans, saying that decisions on social distancing and wearing masks were personal and that he trusted Americans to take the appropriate precautions. In doing so, he laid out a key distinction with Ms. Harris — and with a majority of Americans, who polls show overwhelmingly support the wearing of masks.
A few hours before the debate, Mr. Trump posted a video in which he suggested he had been cured of the coronavirus by an experimental drug cocktail. (Medical experts say he is most likely still battling the illness.)
Mr. Pence was never asked about that. He was also not asked if he agreed with the president that people should not be afraid the disease, or what he thought about the president’s removing his mask in front of television cameras as soon as he had returned to the White House from the hospital.
Harris tells Pence to stop interrupting her.
‘I’m Speaking,’ Harris Says After Pence Interrupts
Senator Kamala Harris asked Vice President Mike Pence to stop cutting in as she responded to a question on taxes.
“Joe Biden has been very clear: He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year —” “He says he’s going to repeal the Trump tax cuts.” “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” “Well — [laughs] —” “I’m speaking.” “The importance is if you said the truth.” “Right — [laughs] —” “Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he’s going to repeal the Trump tax cuts. That was tax cuts that gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year.” “That is —” “Senator, that’s the math.” “That is absolutely not true.” That tax bill —” “Is he only cutting — is he only going to repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?” “If you don’t mind letting me finish —” “Please.” “— we can then have a conversation, OK?”
Ms. Harris is one of the few women ever selected for a major party’s presidential ticket, and the first woman of color to be chosen as a running mate. Her debate with Mr. Pence, a white man from Indiana, was always going to have an undercurrent of gender and racial dynamics.
In this face-off, during which the tone was more cordial than at last week’s presidential debate and issues were the focus, perhaps the most pronounced moments were when Ms. Harris chided Mr. Pence for interrupting her comments. This also occurred when Mr. Pence talked over the moderator, Ms. Page.
Still, Mr. Pence was conscientious about showing respect and deference to Ms. Harris at some points, complimenting her on her barrier-breaking nomination. He and Ms. Harris largely tried to project a feeling absent from the first presidential debate: mutual respect.
On health care, Pence ignores a big question.
Pence Dodges Question on Pre-Existing Conditions
Vice President Mike Pence was asked in Wednesday’s debate how people with pre-existing conditions would be covered if the Affordable Care Act was overruled, but he avoided the question.
“President Trump says that he’s going to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but he has not explained how he would do that. And that was one of the toughest nuts to crack when they were passing the Affordable Care Act. So tell us specifically, how would your administration protect Americans with pre-existing conditions to have access to affordable insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down?” “Well, thank you, Susan. But let me just say, addressing your very first question, I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it. And this is another one of those cases where there’s such a dramatic contrast.”
At one point, Mr. Pence was pressed on how the Trump administration would protect coverage for pre-existing conditions if it succeeded in persuading a court to throw out the Affordable Care Act. (Mr. Trump has pledged to protect such coverage, without offering details on how that might work.)
Mr. Pence ignored the question, pivoting to talk about the Supreme Court and abortion. It was an instructive moment; there were many instances in this debate where he glided over questions, very much in keeping with his debate style.
He also avoided saying whether he would support imposing a ban on abortion in Indiana, where he was once governor, if a Supreme Court ideologically realigned by Mr. Trump’s judicial appointments threw out Roe v. Wade, sending authority on regulating abortion back to the states.
Neither the moderator, Ms. Page, nor Ms. Harris pressed him to answer those questions.
Harris, like Biden, dances around the prospect of expanding the Supreme Court.
Harris Dodges Pence on Packing Supreme Court
Kamala Harris said the Supreme Court vacancy should be filled by the president voters elect in November, while Mike Pence accused Ms. Harris and Joe Biden of wanting to pack the Supreme Court.
“Joe has been very clear, as the American people are: Let the American people fill that seat in the White House, and then we’ll fill that seat on the United States Supreme Court.” “Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed? I mean, there have been 29 vacancies on the Supreme Court during presidential election years, from George Washington to Barack Obama. Presidents have nominated in all 29 cases, but your party is actually openly advocating adding seats to the Supreme Court, which has had nine seats for 150 years, if you don’t get your way. This is a classic case of if you can’t win by the rules, you’re going to change the rules. Now, you’ve refused to answer the question, Joe Biden has refused to answer the question, so I think the American people would really like to know: If Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States, are you and Joe Biden, if somehow you win this election, going to pack the Supreme Court to get your way?” “The American people are voting right now, and it should be their decision about who will serve on this most important body for a lifetime.”
Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden have both decided to not answer a question often posed to them by reporters and Republican opponents: Would their administration embrace the idea of expanding the Supreme Court, as progressive Democrats have urged?
Mr. Pence asked Ms. Harris directly several times to answer the question, and she declined. This is the same posture Mr. Biden has previously adopted, on the basis that it would create a short-term distraction benefiting Mr. Trump in the election.
A dual truth is at play here: Giving a straight answer on expanding the Supreme Court would generate headlines that the Biden campaign would probably prefer to avoid — but Democrats have also been guarded about their governing plans on certain issues.
If Mr. Biden were to win, both moderate and progressive Democrats would hope to have his ear in the Oval Office, and he would face pressure to placate both party wings.
Pence evades a question on a peaceful transfer of power.
Pence Deflects Question on Accepting Election Results
In Wednesday night’s debate, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence were asked if the election results would lead to a peaceful transfer of power.
“President Trump has several times refused to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as vice president? What would you personally do? You have two minutes.” “Well, Susan, first and foremost, I think we’re going to win this election, because while Joe Biden and Kamala Harris rattle off a long litany of the establishment in Washington, D.C., an establishment that Joe Biden’s been a part of for 47 years, President Donald Trump has launched a movement of everyday Americans from every walk of life. When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election. I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing. We’ve all seen the avalanche — what what you put the country through for the better part of three years until it was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion, case closed. And then, Senator Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call. And now Hillary Clinton has actually said to Joe Biden that under — in her words, under no circumstances should he concede the election. So let me just say, I think we’re going to win this election.”
Mr. Pence stuck by Mr. Trump on one critical issue: He evaded a question about what he would do if the president lost the election and wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
“First and foremost, I think we’re going to win this election,” Mr. Pence said. “When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing.”
Mr. Pence was referring, in part, to the impeachment proceedings against the president. (Remember those?)
The vice president also asserted that Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris were trying to change the rules of elections to enable voter fraud.
In the final moments of last week’s presidential debate, in another attempt to stoke uncertainty about the integrity of the election, Mr. Trump claimed — with no apparent basis in fact — that ballots cast by his supporters had been cast into rivers. Mr. Pence had a chance to clear that up. He did not.
The debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris featured sharp exchanges over the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. Here are six takeaways.
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