Just hours before the debate, President Trump declared on another video that his contracting covid-19 was “a blessing from God,” a cruel insult to the 211,000 people who have died and to their grieving families. He also falsely claimed the experimental drug from Regeneron that he had been taking was a “cure” for the disease. With more than 30 members of the White House staff now testing positive for the novel coronavirus, what did Pence, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, have to say?
Before he had a chance to speak, Harris attacked the administration’s record. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she declared, citing the administration’s failure to mount a national testing strategy and its politicization of mask-wearing. Pence insisted they had been on top of the pandemic from the start, but she reminded everyone that it surely did not work. Pressed on his presence on the Rose Garden ceremony at the White House that appears to have been a superspreader event, Pence ducked the question and unloaded blather about trusting the American people. Harris came back with an indictment of the “incompetence” of the administration: “Let’s talk about respecting the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth.”
Asked about the possibility of having to step in should Trump’s health fail, Pence went back to promising a vaccine super fast. He never answered if he had ever spoken to Trump about his condition. Nor did Pence answer a question about Trump’s refusal to reveal complete information about his health. Harris, for her part, also didn’t answer a similar question about stepping in for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, but she made the case that her running mate has been transparent about his health and finances, pivoting to a devastating takedown of Trump’s tax avoidance and his debt to some unknown parties. Pence insisted Trump had paid millions in taxes — but of course we cannot confirm that because has not released his tax returns.
On the economy, Harris socked Trump for favoring the rich. She promised to deliver on infrastructure (which Trump did not), innovation investment and community college. Pence responded with a misstatement of the Biden tax plan (it increases taxes only on those super-rich), for which Harris called him out. She also rebutted Pence’s lie that Biden wants to ban fracking and reminded voters that Trump is trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act in court. She was expert at reclaiming her time and making clear what it means to lose the ACA, which remains popular.
Pence, asked about climate change, spoke of the need for clean water and air but seemed to suggest there is some mystery as to the cause of climate change. Harris reminded the country the administration doesn’t believe in science, excoriating Trump for saying “science doesn’t know” what’s been causing wildfires on the West Coast. She then launched into a takedown of Trump’s China trade war — music to the ears of ex-Republicans who believe in free trade. When Pence claimed that Biden had let China take American jobs, she slammed Pence for voting against the Obama administration’s plan to save the car industry. “Joe Biden is responsible for saving the U.S. auto industry, and you voted against it,” Harris said.
Harris reminded the audience that the Trump administration withdrew a team of public health officials stationed in China to monitor pandemics. She cited a Pew Research study showing America’s collapse in standing around the world. On foreign policy more generally, she spoke in basic terms about relationships and knowing your friends and enemies, laying into Trump for taking the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin over our own intelligence community, weakening NATO and pulling out of the Iran deal with no backup plan. She ended with the best line of the night: “Donald Trump doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.”
Harris lit into Trump for insulting the military, from his dismissal of traumatic brain injuries suffered by our troops as mere “headaches” to his failure to address Russian bounties placed on U.S. soldiers. When Pence tried to interrupt yet again, he got a tongue-lashing from the moderator, Susan Page (who had otherwise been inexcusably weak).
Turning to the Supreme Court, Pence ducked a question on whether he would want his home state of Indiana to outlaw abortion. Harris wouldn’t answer a question on court-packing but instead made the case that it is inappropriate to ram through a Supreme Court nominee while an election is underway. She once again defended the Affordable Care Act and a woman’s right to choose (an overwhelmingly popular position), both in peril with judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. Pence did, however, manage to get away with refusing to answer a question about how the Trump administration would protect Americans with preexisting conditions, which neither Harris nor the moderator followed up on.
On racial justice, Harris gave an impassioned account of the killing of Breonna Taylor and the peaceful Black Lives Matters protests following George Floyd’s killing. She then listed a number of specific police reforms she and Biden support. Pence, on the other hand, seemed to argue that courts always get it right and denounced rioting. Harris hit back, taking umbrage at Pence’s lecturing her. She returned to Trump’s refusal to denounce White supremacists and recited the list of Trump’s racist rhetoric.
On the sanctity of the election, Harris spoke to the number of Republicans who are supporting Biden as well as independents and Democrats. They support him, she said, because Biden supports our democracy. She called out Trump for trying to suppress the vote. Pence refused to answer a question about accepting the results of the election.
Harris could have hit back more at Pence’s lies, but overall she gave a remarkably polished and policy-fluent performance. She knocked down any suggestion that she and Biden are left-wing radicals. In calmly telling Pence “I am talking now” or “Don’t interrupt me” she likely helped solidify the ticket’s huge advantage with women, who are fed up with Republicans’ bullying and rule-breaking. In addition to constantly interrupting and overrunning his time, Pence rarely, if ever, managed to answer a question directly. He said nothing that will attract voters outside the Trump cult.
Page is a fine journalist, but she lost control of the debate and too often allowed Pence to interrupt and go over time limits. The presidential debate commission seems incapable of enforcing rules and holding an orderly debate. Perhaps it’s time for it to close up shop.
WINNER: Harris, the fly on Pence’s head, the plexiglass
LOSERS: The debate commission, Pence’s manners, Susan Page.