In normal times, vice presidential debates don’t matter much. But in an election year as unpredictable as 2020, everything is magnified, and Wednesday’s debate between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic nominee Kamala Harris was no exception.
Pence on Wednesday faced considerable pressure to boost coronavirus-stricken President Donald Trump’s flagging re-election hopes as he trails in national and battleground state polls.
The candidates were separated by plexiglass out of concern for spread of the coronavirus from cases emanating from the White House.
Here are a few key takeaways from the only vice presidential debate ahead of the Nov. 3 Election Day.
More familiar format, fewer interruptions
Millions of Americans were aghast when Trump derailed the first presidential debate with incessant interruptions and a cascade of falsehoods, while Biden answered by calling the Republican incumbent a “clown” who needed to “shut up”.
The opening of Wednesday’s undercard matchup made clear that Pence and Harris were set for a much different encounter – an actual debate.
To be sure, there were sharp moments, some interruptions and repeated violations of the debate clock. But the dynamics represented a rare 2020 return to some semblance of normal presidential politics.
Pence’s even temperament has been a signature of his political career and he has often served as a kind of foil to Trump’s bombast. Harris had a long career as a prosecutor, comfortable arguing her case under pressure. Both played to type. And while several prominent Republicans saluted Pence for his calm demeanour, some Democrats didn’t miss the opportunity to turn the description against him.
A debate for the Covid-19 era
The Trump campaign wants voters to focus on anything but the pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 people across the country and infected at least 7.5 million more. But that subject dominated from the outset, with Trump and a growing list of White House aides, campaign staff and allies now sidelined with Covid-19.
Harris immediately put Pence on the defensive, calling Trump’s pandemic response “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country”. Trump and Pence “still don’t have a plan", she said.
Pence shot back that much of Biden’s proposed coronavirus response is action the federal government is already taking. More clearly than Trump perhaps ever has done, Pence expressed sympathy for all those affected by the pandemic, and he accused Harris of “playing politics with people’s lives”. Harris has accused Trump of politicising the vaccine development process.
In fact, Biden’s plan does have elements that Trump’s doesn’t. Biden has called for the president to issue a mask mandate on federal property and has urged governors and mayors to do the same. He has called for using other federal spending and regulatory power. But Harris skipped those details.
Instead, she faulted the Trump administration for trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) healthcare law, widely known as Obamacare, in the midst of a pandemic. She warned that the Trump administration’s challenge to the ACA would enable insurance companies to deny coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions: “If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you.”
Pence called the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare, a “disaster”.
The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments over the law a week after the election.
Taxes and the economy
Harris also assailed Trump for reportedly paying $750 a year in federal income taxes as president.
“When I first heard about it, I literally said, ‘You mean $750,000?’” Harris said, referring to a New York Times investigation. “And it was like, ‘No – $750’”.
Pence sought to counter Harris’s attacks by turning the focus to the economy and tax policy, saying: “On Day One, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes.” Harris responded by saying that Biden has vowed not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year and highlighted the “30 million people who, in the last several months, had to file for unemployment” in the pandemic-induced recession.
The vice president also asserted that Biden would ban fracking and embrace the Green New Deal, a massive green stimulus proposal backed by the progressive wing of the Democratic party, including Biden’s primary opponent Bernie Sanders. Biden, however, has disavowed both of those positions.
Black Lives Matter protests
Where Harris spoke proudly of joining racial justice protests, Pence denied the existence of systemic racism.
Harris, the first Black woman on a presidential ticket, spoke passionately about “people around our country of every race, of every age, of every gender” who “marched, shoulder to shoulder, arm and arm, fighting for us to finally achieve that ideal of equal justice under law”.
Still, she said, “We are never going to condone violence."
Pence, in contrast, proclaimed his trust for the justice system and put the focus on incidents of violence, saying there was “no excuse for the rioting and looting” – a key message for Trump’s re-election campaign.
He also argued that the idea that “America’s systemically racist” and that police have an implicit bias against minorities “is a great insult to the men and women” who serve in law enforcement.
Few clear answers on the Supreme Court
Perhaps Pence’s most aggressive line of attack on Harris was pressing her for an answer on whether a Biden administration would “pack” the Supreme Court by adding liberal justices if Democrats win the White House. Harris didn’t take the bait, just as Biden hasn’t in recent weeks.
Pence clearly sees the court vacancy as a winning issue for the Republican ticket. He hailed Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who would succeed the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg if she’s confirmed, as expected, before the election. At least twice, he spoke directly to voters warning that Biden and Democrats would expand the court if they “don’t get their way” on blocking Barrett.
Harris seemingly missed an opportunity to remind Pence and the audience that the court’s Republican lean comes because the GOP-led Senate in 2016 refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee in the spring of 2016, carrying over a vacancy that Trump filled in 2017. She did, however, invoke Republican Abraham Lincoln, who declined to make a Supreme Court nomination less than a month before his reelection.
The senator did manage to turn Pence’s “pack the court” attack around by noting that Trump’s slate of federal court appointees has been overwhelmingly white. And she underscored Democrats’ argument and public polling that suggests most voters think the Senate should wait until after the election to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy.
Other questions dodged
The Supreme Court was not the only area where the candidates avoided taking clear positions.
Pence and Harris repeatedly dodged and sidestepped queries from debate moderator Susan Page, answering questions however they wanted.
The vice president danced around the Rose Garden Supreme Court ceremony last weekend that is now considered a spreader event and instead pivoted to platitudes about personal responsibility. He said he and the president “trust the American people to make choices” while accusing Harris of Biden of pushing mandates.
When both were asked whether they had discussed succession plans with their far older running mates in case they are incapacitated, Pence instead slammed Harris for her “continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine” to fight the coronavirus.
Harris, meanwhile, used the question to share her biography, telling the story of her immigrant mother and her election as the first woman and the first Black person elected as attorney general in California.
With the president’s poll numbers flagging since his manic debate performance and his infection with the coronavirus, Pence appeared to be on one mission: to stop the freefall.
Instead of speaking to on-the-fence independents or working to change the minds of undecided voters, Pence seemed intent on trying to keep the president’s base behind him.
Harris had a different burden because she is less well known. She introduced herself as credible and competent and likely assured Democratic voters that she is capable of stepping into the role of commander in chief if needed.
And she gamely defended Biden, another classic role for a vice president, broadly framing Trump’s tenure as a failure and Biden as suited to pick up the pieces.
A CNN snap poll appeared to confirm her success, with 59% of respondents calling Harris the winner and just 38% preferring Pence’s performance.
‘Fly will vote’
In many respects, Wednesday’s face-off defied both the traditionally lacklustre tone of vice presidential debates and the chaotic one set by last week’s battle between Trump and Biden. It gave both candidates far more opportunities to address policy issues, and they did so with what appeared to be carefully prepared talking points.
Not all viewers, though, found the policy debates most memorable. Instead, post-debate discussion on social media was consumed with the two minutes when a fly rested on Pence’s well-combed white hair. The vice president did not flinch.
As the moment quickly turned into a viral meme, the Biden campaign pounced, grabbing the internet domain flywillvote.com, tweeting it out from his account, and taking users to a site for voter registration and information – a striking reflection of how the “most important VP debate in US history” played out in the social media age.
Revisit more debate highlights in FRANCE 24’s live blog below.