It was average, thank goodness. Kamala Harris and Mike Pence may have just saved the future of debates.
In the vice presidential face-off Wednesday, Harris chastised Pence for Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”
Pence jabbed at Biden for a decades-old plagiarism scandal, suggesting his approach to controlling the coronavirus wouldn’t be much different than Trump’s.
Pence and Harris interrupted each other occasionally. And they rarely stopped when the moderator, Susan Page, asked them to. But throughout the debate in Salt Lake City, the two politicians did something that Trump’s interruptions and outbursts would not allow during last week’s presidential debate. They talked.
There were quiet pauses — unheard of during the presidential debate last week — when the Page asked if one of the candidates might like to respond. Pence told Harris it was a “privilege” to share the stage with her.
Interested viewers could hear what the two candidates were saying. Disinterested viewers could flip the channel to baseball without worrying a bomb was about to go off.
If you think that’s not consequential, consider the despair that moderator Chris Wallace, the Commission on Presidential Debates and political professionals everywhere were thrust into following the debate between Trump and Joe Biden last week. The commission announced it was considering “additional structure” to “ensure a more orderly discussion.”
Maybe all they needed was to change the people on stage.
Here are some other takeaways from tonight’s vice presidential debate.
Pandemic response success is in the eye of the debater
The most effective line of attack Democrats have against Trump is his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and Harris bludgeoned Pence for the White House’s halting and at-times chaotic response to the virus. To Harris, it is “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” To Pence, it was an early intervention that saved lives.
The lines weren’t new. But the debate served as a reminder that the virus isn’t going anywhere in the final month of the campaign — and Pence seems to know it. Instead of dodging on the virus, he punched back, asserting that the administration will have a vaccine in “record time” and accusing Harris of working to “undermine public confidence in a vaccine.”
“Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” he said.
The problem for Pence is that the weight of public opinion is against him. More than 200,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. The pandemic is raging, with the president — himself infected — leaving the hospital only Monday. The White House has become a hot spot of infection. And if that wasn’t enough, Trump on Tuesday pulled out of negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over a pandemic relief package, deflating financial markets on his first day back.
If the in-person audience needed a reminder, the situation is so grave in Salt Lake City that debate coverage in the local newspaper this morning shared above-the-fold real estate with a story about the mayor urging reinstatement of some public health restrictions.
Pence the defender
Pence is better at this than Trump.
Whereas the president failed last week to make the debate about anything other than him, Pence knows how to pivot. And he did.
Asked if he believes climate change is an “existential threat,” Pence turned to taxes, criticizing Biden for proposing to cancel Trump-era tax cuts. He hit Harris and Biden on fracking and fossil fuels, saying a Biden administration would “crush” American jobs.
He accused Harris of being unacceptably liberal.
None of this may work, of course. This election is overwhelmingly a referendum on Trump, and the president is lagging badly for a reason. But Republicans will be a lot happier leaving a debate in which the focus wasn’t so lopsidedly on the president.
What Trump needed from Pence on Wednesday is what he got — a calm explanation to Republicans and right-leaning independents that a Trump-Pence ticket, however chaotic, also comes with the conservative policies they care about.
Pence resets debate with a focus on the Supreme Court
The best thing Pence did for Republicans on Wednesday night was to refocus attention on the Supreme Court — and pummel Harris for refusing to say if she and Biden will support expanding the court if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed.
This was no easy task. Trump’s hospitalization — and the infections of Republicans around him — had turned the public attention on Barrett’s nomination away from the court and to an epidemiological study of the Rose Garden event that kicked it off.
But Pence pushed past that.
“I think the American people really deserve an answer,” he said. When Harris repeatedly dodged, Pence spoke directly to the camera, saying, “The straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election.”
Republicans believe highlighting Barrett could energize base voters and persuade conservative-leaning independents to get over their reservations about Trump’s temperament or other aspects of his job performance.
On the line is a case to undercut the Affordable Care Act that the Supreme Court will hear one week after Election Day, as well as the composition of a court that may be called on to settle election-related disputes.
Harris criticized Pence for the administration’s efforts to undo health care protections and on Democrats’ concerns about what Barrett’s confirmation could mean for Roe v. Wade. But what will be remembered from the Supreme Court conversation is the Biden-Harris ticket’s unwillingness to answer on a Supreme Court expansion.
Harris is tightly scripted in big moments
It was bad enough when Trump refused to condemn white supremacists last week, instead telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
It was devastating for the Trump-Pence ticket watching Harris remind the country of it.
This wasn’t Trump, Biden or Chris Wallace — three other white, male septuagenarians — on stage with the Pence. It was Harris who, if elected, will be the first Black vice president.
Harris was on and off during the debate, and Pence edged in more often than she did. But Harris was effective on the coronavirus and powerful on race.
The former prosecutor said she would “not be lectured to” by Pence about issues of law and order and criminal justice. She and Pence were talking, she said, about a president, during last week’s debate, “refused to condemn white supremacists.”
Pence shook his head and said, “Not true.” But it was. Millions of Americans saw it for themselves.
Harris got in trouble in the primary when she went off script — or didn’t have one.
Back in 2018, she said “it depends,” when asked at a town hall meeting if she would reject donations from corporations or corporate lobbyists, then changed course within weeks and electing not to take corporate PAC money. During the primary, she struggled to express how, exactly, she planned to address health care — with the Biden campaign dismissing the proposal she came up with as a “have-it-every-which-way” plan.
But Harris’ plans are now Biden’s. And when Harris is prepared — as her performance in the debate demonstrated — she can be very good.
Life — and death — is a stage
If the first 15 minutes of a debate are the most important, the opening scene on Wednesday wasn’t good for the Trump-Pence ticket.
Susan Page, the moderator, described the “extra precautions” taken to avoid spreading the coronavirus, including plexiglass separating the two candidates, clear reminder to viewers of the Trump administration’s inability to control the coronavirus pandemic, even inside the White House.
Of course, that was a round Harris won before the debate even started. Pence had objected to such a barrier before caving, and it was a gross miscalculation. The controversy generated a flurry of coverage, and the barriers when up, anyway.
It’s not a conversation the Trump-Pence ticket wants to have. And if Pence — who has so far tested negative for Covid-19 — couldn’t stop organizers from putting stricter public health measures in place, it’s hard to see how Trump, who just left the hospital with the virus, will be able to do any better if either of the two remaining presidential debates go forward.
Pence affixes himself to Trump
History suggests Wednesday’s vice presidential debate almost certainly won’t affect the outcome of this election. But it might have offered a preview of the next one.
Pence put zero daylight between himself and the president. He evaded a question about Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, saying he would have confidence in the outcome if it is “free and fair.” He said support for Trump had only grown in four years, that the media unfairly “selectively edit” the president, and that he “couldn’t be more proud” to stand with Trump.
It might not matter. Trump still has a grasp on the Republican Party, and the attachment may serve Pence well. Sure, he can be boring. But who knows what Republicans will be in the mood for personality-wise in four years. Pence’s approval ratings among Republicans are solid, and he has support among Christian conservatives.
But if Trump loses big, Pence may have a trouble. In past appearances, he has at least nodded to some differences with the president, saying at the Republican National Convention this summer, for example, that Trump “does things his own way, on his own terms.”
Pence produced nothing on Wednesday that he will be able to point back to four years from now as evidence of at least some separation.
And it is possible that Pence and Harris will be sharing a stage once again. Regardless of whether Biden or Trump wins, Harris will likely be an immediate frontrunner in the next open Democratic presidential primary, whether in 2024 or 2028.
The polite thing to say is that he’s steady, if at times boring. But who knows what Republicans will be in the mood for personality-wise after four or eight years of Trump. His approval ratings among Republicans are solid, and he has support among Christian conservatives.
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