The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In VP debate, Trump is again the issue as Pence tries to change the focus

Vice President Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris confronted one another at the first and only vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

Vice President Pence had a difficult hand to play in Wednesday’s debate with Sen. Kamala Harris and he did what he could with the case he wanted to make. But the more he tried, the clearer it became just how much President Trump continues to undermine his own campaign.

In every debate, words matter. Attacks made and attacks countered matter. But what spoke as loudly as anything Wednesday night was the very staging of the debate. Pence and Harris sat widely separated from one another, with plexiglass barriers between them. The staging literally shouted “coronavirus,” the issue that most directly threatens Trump’s reelection.

Harris pounced early in the debate, condemning the president’s handling of the pandemic, pressing her arguments in the face of Pence’s insistence that the administration has marshaled an effective national effort against the virus. It was the tone-setting moment in a debate that ranged widely in topics and questions if not always in direct answers.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the Democratic vice presidential candidate, criticized the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus on Oct. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

Pence repeated arguments the president has made time and again, against the evidence, arguments that have been rejected by a majority of the American people. But he could not or would not answer a question from moderator Susan Page of USA Today, who asked him why the United States has a higher death rate from the novel coronavirus than almost any other major country in the world.

Nor did he answer why the administration had staged an event devoid of social distancing in the Rose Garden for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The gathering appears to have contributed to the spread of the virus, which has now infected Trump, first lady Melania Trump and many White House staffers.

Nor for that matter would he commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he and Trump lose the election. That should have been an easy question to answer, but his non-response was a reminder of the box he was put in by a president who has repeatedly declined to make such a pledge.

Pence and Harris both came well-armed with the message they wanted to impart and they were determined to say what they wanted to say, almost no matter what they were asked. They used their time for set speeches, often on issues that were not even related to the questions posed.

Pence used his time to try to undermine Biden, which Trump so far has failed to do. He raised questions about what a Biden administration would do on taxes, climate, fracking, China and the Supreme Court. Not since the Republican National Convention has anyone from the Trump campaign been as focused and disciplined as Pence was in attacking Biden and Harris.

Harris kept her focus where the Biden campaign wants it, on Trump and the record he has compiled, especially on the pandemic. She called the response to the pandemic “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of the country.”

But she too avoided answering direct questions, most notably when Pence pressed her about whether a Biden administration would seek to expand the Supreme Court. Biden has ducked that question repeatedly and Harris was not willing to say yes or no either.

The overall tone of the debate was a dramatic change from last week’s encounter between Trump and Biden, pointed but civil throughout. Both exceeded their allotted time on many questions, but the interruptions were minimal. Page repeatedly sought, with modest success, to ask them to adhere to those time limits.

As important as this debate was — perhaps the most important of any vice-presidential debate in the past three decades, it probably was not a game-changer. Both Harris and Pence probably left thinking they had succeeded in their main missions, and partisans likely cheered the performance of their respective candidate.

This was not the first time in recent elections when a vice president was tasked with cleaning up after a president. Biden found himself in that position eight years ago after then-President Barack Obama’s poor performance in his first debate against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

But the cleanup job for Pence was all the more challenging given the state of the race, Trump’s performance in last week’s debate and the president’s hospitalization after testing positive for the virus. Three national polls by media organizations released in the past few days showed Biden widening his lead, a change after months in which the polls have moved only marginally.

A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll showed Biden leading Trump by 14 points while a CNN poll put Biden’s margin at 16 points. A Fox News poll released hours before the debate showed Biden’s lead doubling, from five points to 10 points. It’s possible that these polls, taken in a white-hot moment of news, offered an overly rosy picture of Biden’s standing. In another week, things could settle back — but by how much is the question. Trump can’t afford mere settling.

In the battleground states, Trump and Pence continue to struggle to find a clear path to victory. In states where one candidate has a lead, such as Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania, it’s Biden who is on top. In other battleground states, the two candidates are running roughly even. That includes Ohio and Florida, two states that Trump won in 2016. Losing either would be crippling to Trump’s hopes of winning. Losing both would leave him no path to victory.

Vice-presidential debates are generally far less important than the presidential debates. At most they are an opportunity for voters to get a better look at the two running mates matched together. But in measuring the two candidates on the stage, given that both Trump and Biden are in their 70s, voters could hardly avoid looking at Pence and Harris and thinking that one of them could end up as president before the next presidential term ends.

For that reason, Harris and Pence were being judged by some viewers not just as running mates defending their nominees but also as potential leaders of the country in their own right. The contrast could hardly have been more different, in both style and substance.

Pence came across as what he is, a solid conservative and a stolid Midwesterner, distinctly different than the man he has served loyally, sometimes to a fault, for the past four years. He is reflective of what the Republican Party had been before Trump captured it, changed it and forced everyone in the party to follow along.

Harris came to the debate as the first Black woman and first South Asian to be on a major party ticket, which alone made the debate a historic encounter but also served to highlight a Democratic Party whose coalition is built on support from women and people of color. Pence reflected a Republican Party whose coalition is overwhelmingly white and increasingly male.

Harris brought her own distinctive persona and personality to the stage, not only offering a contrast with Pence but also with the Democratic nominee who selected her as his running mate. She also brought the prosecutorial style for which she is known, though seemed to pass up some opportunities to rebut or challenge Pence’s statements.

Ideologically, she stands to the left of Biden. Pence sought to exploit that throughout the evening, pointing to her support for a Green New Deal and challenging her to explain how the Biden plan differs from the more ambitious plan favored by some climate activists. But the Trump campaign has been trying to do this for months, and so far it hasn’t stuck.

No one can say whether this will prove to be the last debate of the campaign, given the president’s illness. But if there is a debate next week or the week after, it will be left to Trump and Biden to advance the battle.

For the president, running from behind and with time running out, the stakes will be even higher than they were a week ago or on the stage at the University of Utah on Wednesday night. He has put himself in a bad position and it will be his, not Pence’s, problem to correct.