On October 7, Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris met for the only Vice Presidential Debate. In contrast to last week’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, both Vice President Pence and Senator Harris sought to discuss actual public policy. Both Pence and Harris sparred over topics ranging from climate change, taxes, foreign policy, the Coronavirus pandemic, and 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 Coronavirus and argued that the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans were effectively inevitable, despite scientific studies showing otherwise.
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 President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. “Americans also deserve a discussion that is civil,” she said. Senator Kamala Harris opened by laying out the case against the Trump Administration’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. “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.
Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike 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, Vice President Pence said his heart breaks for her family but “I trust our justice system.” He added that he and President Donald Trump have fought for criminal justice reform. Senator Harris 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.”
Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris’s discussion about climate change typified the campaign trail debate on global warming. Even before being asked, Vice President Pence sought to tie Joe 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. Senator Harris adamantly denied the claim that the Biden administration would ban fracking while sidestepping any in-depth discussion of the Green New Deal. 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.
When the subject of the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings inevitably came up, Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike 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 Vice President 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.
Kamala Harris responded by noting that both she and Joe 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 Mike 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.
While foreign policy was barely discussed in the presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris engaged in a substantive exchange about the standing of the US in the world. Senator 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 President Donald 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 US 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.”
Vice President Mike Pence countered that President Donald 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 US 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 General Qasem Soleimani Pence also denied the reporting about Trump’s comments about the military, saying Trump “respects” and “reveres” those who serve in the US military.
Overall, the Vice Presidential debate was far more civil when compared to the Presidential debate. Neither Senator Kamala Harris nor Vice President Mike Pence interrupted each other and instead focused on substantive policy as opposed to personal insults. The case can be made that Vice President Pence narrowly won the debate overall. Whereas Senator Harris was well-prepared in her arguments and directly hit the Trump administration over many policy issues, Pence was strong in his rebuttals and was able to frame his responses in an effective way despite their dubious factual backing. Despite Vice President Pence’s victory in the Vice Presidential debate, it is likely that the debate will do little to change the final results of the Presidential election.