Last time around, two angry old men argued for over an hour and a half in what was supposed to be a presidential debate but was widely dismissed as either a complete waste of time or a national disgrace. Expectations for the vice presidential debate were understandably higher.
This quadrennial running mate face-off is normally billed as the undercard debate, a polite way of describing a sideshow. Not to be morbid about it, but because Donald Trump and Joe Biden are running for the dubious honor of becoming the oldest chief executive to occupy the Oval Office and because the COVID-positive incumbent needed supplemental oxygen on his way to the hospital last week, this debate took on increased significance.
Voters watched Mike Pence and Kamala Harris compete over who would be one heartbeat away from the presidency and, perhaps almost as importantly, what kind of influence they would have over the next White House. They also watched for something Trump and Biden didn’t offer: a clear vision for the next four years. They saw, instead, two candidates unable or uninterested in giving straight answers.
This began early in the night with a double dodge of the most pertinent question during a pandemic. Debate moderator Susan Page asked: Had they discussed safeguards or procedures with their running mates in case of presidential disability? Pence gave an unrelated answer about how Democrats had “undermined public confidence in a vaccine.” When it was her turn, Harris inexplicably talked about when Biden asked her to join the ticket, calling it “one of the most memorable days of my life.”
Page moved on. Her question went unanswered. The non sequiturs kept coming.
At one point, Pence turned a question about abortion into a meandering reply about the U.S. attack on Iranian intelligence commander Qasem Soleimani. Harris saw that gambit and raised him one: Asked if the next president should be transparent about his health records, Harris brought up Trump’s recently leaked tax returns.
All night long, the two candidates treated Page’s queries as mere prompts to discuss whatever topic they preferred. In that way, it was a throwback to an earlier, pre-Trump, era. Pence and Harris were polite and respectful and almost automatic as they delivered pre-planned lines in sincere-sounding tones. Yet despite all the rehearsed theater, a contrast eventually emerged that helped to define the two tickets represented by the candidates seated more than 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass.
Harris argued repeatedly that Trump and Pence had badly bungled the response to the pandemic. Her evidence: Over 200,000 Americans killed and another 7.4 million infected by the virus. It wasn’t just “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” said California’s junior senator. It was malpractice. She accused the administration of trying to cover up the severity of the virus, negligence that “forfeited their right to reelection.”
Pence countered that if Biden had been in office – and had handled COVID-19 the way the Obama-Biden administration had dealt with swine flu -- the number of American fatalities would have surpassed 2 million instead of the 210,000 figure Harris invoked often. He argued that by shutting down travel to China, his boss had “bought us invaluable time” for a national mobilization. He promised that a vaccine was on the horizon. He said that Biden’s coronavirus plan “looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”
Pence’s disadvantage in this exchange was obvious: He was defending the administration just days after the president was discharged from Walter Reed medical center and as the virus works its way through the White House staff. If he felt compromised by this inconvenient outbreak, the vice president didn’t show it. The real difference between the two campaigns, according to Pence: “President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.”
“Let’s talk about respecting the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth,” Harris shot back.
The two candidates were even farther apart on how to revive the economy, with Harris calling it “the fundamental difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.” Republicans gauge success by “how rich people are doing,” she said, while a Democratic president would measure growth by “the strength of the American worker.” She promised that repealing the Trump tax cuts would be a “Day One” priority and pledged that new revenue would be spent on infrastructure and education.
Pence took that promise and turned it on its head: “On Day One, Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes.” Stick with Trump, he urged voters, and the economy would return to pre-pandemic glory. For proof, he pointed to how the economy had already added 11.6 million of the 22 million jobs lost as the country confronted the coronavirus. “President Trump and I will keep America growing,” he insisted. “The V-shape recovery that’s underway right now will continue.”
There was little room for any discussion of the single social issue of the night: abortion. Both candidates laid out their positions, the entrenched orthodoxies of their respective political parties, and that was that. When Page asked each debate participant a precise question about what they’d want state law to look like back home -- Pence in Indiana, Harris in California -- in the event the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, neither of them would go there.
“I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” Harris said.
“I’m pro-life,” Pence replied. “I don’t apologize for it, and this is another one of those cases where there’s such a dramatic contrast.”
While the debate clarified positions of the campaigns, neither side offer anything new. The only unscripted moment came courtesy of a house fly. It landed on the silver hair of the vice president long enough to make headlines, perhaps a testament to how boring some in the press found the presentation. Then again, fireworks were never likely.
The Biden-Harris ticket leads Trump-Pence by 9.7 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, a lead that has grown since the coronavirus landed the president at Walter Reed. Democrats see the virus as their best argument against a second Trump term. With no end in sight to the pandemic, Harris only had to stay the course and avoid any mistakes. For Pence, it was the opposite: He needed to score.
Republicans had hoped that when voters saw Trump and Biden square off, the electorate would favor the incumbent. They were disappointed. A poor showing combined with the poor health of the president has the ticket dropping in the polls. It fell to Pence to stop the bleeding.
He returned to the game plan the Trump campaign had hoped to run before biology wrecked their strategy. A Biden administration, the vice president argued, would be centrist in name only. Here, Pence made the most of his opponent’s Senate record. Throughout the night, he noted how Harris had signed on as a co-sponsor of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal, a climate change plan that goes farther than even Biden is willing to go. Harris never directly responded to the point.
Pence attacked her left flank again and again, also pressing his opponent to say whether Biden would sign off on adding more justices to the Supreme Court to counteract a conservative bench.
“People are voting right now,” he said. “They would like to know if you and Joe Biden are going to pack the Supreme Court if you don’t get your way in this nomination.” She didn’t respond other than to cite Abraham Lincoln as a historical opponent of confirming judges in a presidential election year.
“I just want the record to reflect she never answered the question,” Pence shot back. “Maybe in the next debate Joe Biden will answer the question, but I think the American people know the answer.”
By the end of the debate, actual answers about each side’s policy prescriptions were in short supply. Pence and Harris both get points for pulling off a civil debate during a bitterly partisan election. Neither, however, seemed capable of, or interested in, addressing direct questions. They drew a contrast anyway.