Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris had an easy task ahead of them in Wednesday’s vice presidential debate: make it better—more cordial, more substantive and less chaotic—than their bosses’ inaugural face-off last week. They cleared that very low bar.
Neither candidate told the other to shut up or hurdled invectives, and at one point, Pence congratulated Harris on the historic nature of her candidacy. But most notably, discussions of actual policy—almost unthinkable in last week’s debate—dominated the majority of the night. The candidates sparred on climate change, taxes, the U.S.-China relationship, health care, COVID-19, and President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Both candidates were on the defense at times. Pence found himself in the hot seat when he had to answer for the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which polling shows most Americans deem lackluster at best. Pence, who leads the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, unequivocally defended the Trump Administration’s handling of COVID-19 and argued that the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans were effectively inevitable, despite scientific studies showing otherwise. (He also briefly, if unwittingly, delighted social media denizens when a fly alighted on his hair for a prolonged period.)
Harris, for her part, danced around the question of how a potential Biden Administration would have handled its COVID-19 response differently, saying only that she and former Vice President Joe Biden would have done better than Trump. She also did not answer Pence’s repeated queries about whether she and Biden would support “court packing,” or increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court—a hot button issue for some voters.
Here are the main takeaways from what was, in a throwback to a different era, a comparatively civil night in (vice) presidential politics.
Transfer of Power
Trump raised eyebrows during last week’s debate when he declined to commit on a peaceful transfer of power if Biden prevailed in November. Tonight, when Pence was asked a similar question, he too declined to answer directly, instead insisting that he and Trump would win the election—so the point was moot. Moderate Susan Page of USA Today declined to follow up with Pence, instead pivoting to ask Harris about the divisive nature of politics right now.
Race in America
Harris and Pence clashed over the issues of police violence and the country’s reckoning on racial justice this year. When asked whether justice was done in the case of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT who was killed by Louisville police officers earlier this year, Pence said his heart breaks for her family but “I trust our justice system.” He added that he and President Trump have fought for criminal justice reform.
Harris, shaking her head, hit back by emphasizing her record as a prosecutor. She then criticized Trump for his treatment of racial issues over the years, including at last week’s presidential debate when Trump did not condemn the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, and instead told them to “stand back and stand by”—a message that was taken by the group as encouragement.
“Last week the President of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists,” Harris said. She added that this was not the first time Trump has emboldened those who hold racist views. “This is a part of a pattern of Donald Trump’s,” she said, calling out Trump’s reference to Mexicans as “rapists,” his proposed “Muslim ban,” and of his comments after the white supremacist riots in Charlottesville, where Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
U.S. standing in the world
While foreign policy was barely discussed in the presidential debate, Pence and Harris engaged in a substantive exchange about the United States’ standing in the world.
Harris said in a Biden Administration, foreign policy would be based on longstanding relationships. “You’ve got to keep your word to your friends, you’ve got to be loyal to your friends,” Harris said. “You’ve got to know who your adversaries are, keep them in check.”
Harris said Trump has “betrayed” American allies, noting his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and rough treatment of allies in NATO, and the fact that he withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. She decried Trump’s “unilateral approach to foreign policy” and his “isolationism.” She also noted the reporting in The Atlantic that Trump had called members of the U.S. military “suckers” and “losers.”
Pence countered that Trump has “stood strong with our allies,” but, he acknowledged, “we’ve been demanding.” He said NATO members are paying more in defense spending, and cited achievements including moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, launched a raid that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the leader of the Islamic State, and authorized the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Pence also denied the reporting about Trump’s comments about the military, saying Trump “respects” and “reveres” those who serve in the U.S. military.
Summarizing a theory of foreign policy, Harris said one of the U.S.’s key strengths is that “we keep our word” in our relationships abroad, but Trump “doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.” Pence, on the other hand, said that under Trump’s leadership, “America is safer. Our allies are safer.”
Amy Coney Barrett and the Supreme Court
When the subject of the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings inevitably came up, Harris and Pence were both asked how they would want their respective states to respond if the new court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion.
Although Pence asserted he was “pro-life” and felt no need to apologize for it, and Harris stressed her belief in a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, it was clear that both candidates wanted to avoid the topic. Pence repeatedly stressed Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s credentials, and argued that Democrats would criticize her Catholic faith and pack the court—expanding it beyond nine justices—if they won the election.
Harris responded by noting that both she and Biden are people of faith—and that if elected, Biden would be the second practicing Catholic to hold that office. But Harris also spent the majority of her time reiterating the main line of attack Senate Democrats have been employing against Barrett: that, as a justice, she would help to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
When Pence repeated his allegation that Democrats would pack the court if they win, Harris brushed off the attack and pointed to the Trump Administration’s outsized list of federal judge appointees, but ultimately declined to directly answer the question. Biden has previously said he opposes court packing, but progressives ratcheted up their calls to do so in the wake of Barrett’s nomination, and it is increasingly seen as a fault line between progressive and centrist Democrats.
Climate change and American energy
Pence and Harris’s discussion about climate change typified the campaign trail debate on global warming. Even before being asked, Pence sought to tie Biden to the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution introduced in 2019 that calls for bold public spending to address climate change and other social ills, and claimed that Biden would ban fracking. Fracking and the Green New Deal have become hot-button issues in the election, particularly in the swing state of Pennsylvania where fracking is a significant source of employment.
Harris adamantly denied the claim that the Biden administration would ban fracking while sidestepping any in-depth discussion of the Green New Deal. (Biden has praised the congressional Green New Deal and embraced its principles but has offered a distinct plan).
On the science of climate change, Pence adhered to the talking points, acknowledging that “the climate is changing.” Meanwhile, Harris emphasized both the destruction wrought by climate change and the potential for new jobs.
Sidestepping questions of presidential health
Pointing to both the age of the presidential candidates and the dangers of coronavirus, Page asked two consecutive questions about the health of the candidates at the top of their respective tickets. Both Harris and Pence dodged.
Harris briefly declared that Biden is “honest” and “forthright” and would be transparent about his health before pivoting to hammer Trump for not being transparent about his taxes. In response to the first question, Pence talked about the Trump Administration’s coronavirus response. When pressed the second time, Pence touted what he called President Trump’s “exceptional transparency” around his coronavirus hospitalization and promised more of it before pivoting.
Grappling with the safety of a vaccine
When asked whether she would take a coronavirus vaccine, Harris said she would—but only if doctors and scientists approved of its release. “If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors, tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely,” she said, then smiled broadly. “But if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.”
Pence replied that Harris was undermining public trust in the vaccine. “Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” he said.
Mistrust of vaccines is a significant issue in America. Before becoming President, Trump spread misinformation about vaccines, but this year, he has insisted that a COVID-19 vaccine could be out by the November election. Scientists and vaccine makers say that if everything goes smoothly, some people could get a vaccine by the end of this year—but polls show Trump’s promises of producing a vaccine in “record time” are making people nervous that it will be rushed and therefore unsafe.
COVID-19 immediately takes the stage
The debate began with moderator Susan Page laying out rules and saying that each candidate would have two minutes to talk uninterrupted—unlike the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden. “Americans also deserve a discussion that is civil,” she said.
She then acknowledged the debate is happening as Trump is still sick with COVID-19 and asking about the two campaigns’ varying responses to the pandemic.
Harris opened by laying out the case against the Trump Administration’s handling of the coronavirus. “The American people have witnessed the greatest failure of any presidential administration in our history,” Harris said. She did not outline a specific response that she and Biden would take if they were to take office January, but repeatedly hammered Trump for downplaying the virus and telling Americans it was less dangerous than it is while millions of people lost jobs and lives. “They knew and they covered it up,” she added.
Pence hit back by defending the Administration’s response and said he constantly thinks about the victims of the virus, but that the White House wanted to respect the “freedom” of the American people.
“You respect the American people when you tell them the truth,” Harris replied.
The debate before the debate: plexiglass
Pence and Harris did not wear masks during the debate, but viewers couldn’t escape the imagery of the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to two plexiglass dividers that were installed on the stage next to the desks where the candidates will sit.
Both candidates have been tested for the virus before the event, but the partitions are intended to keep the virus from spreading across the stage in the event that one of the candidates is infected but is too early in the course of disease to get a positive test result. In keeping with the candidates’ differing approaches to the pandemic, the Trump campaign had argued that the dividers weren’t necessary in recent days, while the Biden campaign argued that they were needed given the scale of the coronavirus outbreak at the White House. (At the end of the debate, the candidates’ spouses illustrated this divide too: Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff arrived on stage wearing a mask while Pence’s wife, Karen, was mask-less as she waved to the crowd.)
Despite the extensive back and forth about the barriers between the campaigns, it remains unclear how effective the barriers would actually be in the event that one of the candidates is infected. The candidates are already sitting 12 feet apart — a social distancing request from the Biden team — and virus experts say the auditorium’s ventilation is more likely to be an issue than the candidates spitting on each other.