But not answering the questions, it seemed, was precisely the point.
Over 90 minutes Wednesday night, debate moderator and USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page posed a series of probing and important queries to Pence and Harris — on the health of their septuagenarian running mates, on court-packing, on a peaceful transition of power.
The public, however, is still waiting on answers.
Both candidates ducked, bobbed and wove past questions they didn’t want to answer, segueing into their preplanned talking points and attacks and largely ignoring Page, as well as her best efforts to enforce time limits.
Pence employed the strategy most frequently, bulldozing — politely, calmly, resolutely — through Page’s pleas to move along and sweeping aside inquiries about everything from President Trump’s health to his administration’s specific plan to protect insurance coverage for people with preexisting health conditions.
As Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report, summed up the debate on Twitter, Pence’s responses consisted of “talking point, talking point, fracking, Green New Deal,” while Harris’s answers tended toward “talking point, talking point, Trump, Trump.”
How effective the strategy was remains to be seen, but both candidates deployed it early and often, albeit Pence more so than Harris.
The first indication that barbs would be lobbed but questions might not be answered came early in the evening, when Page noted that both Trump — who recently was hospitalized with the novel coronavirus — and former vice president Joe Biden are in their 70s, and asked if either No. 2 had discussed with their running mate how they would handle a presidential disability.
Pence said nary a word about Trump’s age or physical fitness, instead using his allotted time to attack Harris for, he claimed, “undermining confidence in a vaccine” and to criticize Biden for the Obama administration’s handling of the H1N1 swine flu.
Harris, meanwhile, turned her answer into a mini biographical tour de force, waxing on about how memorable the day was when Biden used a Zoom video call to ask her — “the first woman of color and Black woman to be elected attorney general of the state of California” and “only the second Black woman ever elected to the United States Senate” — to serve as his running mate.
The two also both ignored a question on what their home states should do if the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling were overturned, although Pence did later circle back, to declare himself unapologetically antiabortion.
When asked specifically how the Trump administration would protect Americans with preexisting conditions if the Affordable Care Act were struck down, Pence first returned to the general topic of the abortion question he’d previously sidestepped — “I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life,” he said — before quickly moving on to accuse Harris of wanting to pack the Supreme Court with more justices.
The words of the actual question — “preexisting conditions” — did not once leave his lips.
And on court-packing, the theme to which Pence so deftly pivoted, Harris executed a two-step of her own. She first offered what she cheerfully quipped was “a little history lesson,” stretching back 160 years to 1860 when, she explained, President Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection and, 27 days before Election Day, a vacancy came up on the Supreme Court.
“But Honest Abe said, it’s not the right thing to do,” Harris said. “The American people deserve to make the decision about who will be the next president of the United States and then that person can select who will serve for a lifetime on the highest court of our land.”
Moments later, she offered a different interpretation of court-packing, noting that “of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the Court of Appeals for lifetime appointments, not one is Black.”
“You want to talk about packing a court? Let’s have that discussion,” she concluded, without ever actually answering the question about court-packing.
The evasions and prevarications did not go unnoticed, at least not on social media, where pundits, journalists and voters alike weighed in — often snarkily — on the questions for which everyone except the two candidates seemed eager for answers.
“These are good questions — it would be nice if we got to [hear] answers to them,” tweeted McKay Coppins, a staff writer at the Atlantic.
Many of the questions were direct and left little room for interpretation.
“Why is the U.S. death toll as a percentage of our population higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?” Page asked Pence.
“How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from covid, when you at the White House have not been doing so?” she asked him later.
“Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter and more deadly and have made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging?” she asked him later still.
And again, and again, and again, Pence cheerfully, earnestly, confidently simply did not answer.
The vice president also ignored a question near the end on what he would do if Biden is declared the winner of the election but Trump refuses, as he has threatened previously, to accept a peaceful transition of power. Declining to answer, Pence instead raised the prospect of how changes to the mail-in voting rules could create “massive opportunity for voter fraud,” before repeatedly reasserting his confidence that he and Trump will prevail on Election Day.
“I think we’re going to win this election,” Pence said, adding again, for emphasis, “I believe in all my heart, the President Donald Trump is going to be reelected for four more years.”
So yes, the debate may have left voters wanting — at least those who wanted answers — but both Harris and Pence appeared to successfully deliver the talking points they came armed with to the forum.
After all, even Trump, a notoriously fickle boss, has marveled at his vice president’s ability to speak without answering the actual question posed.
In April, Pence was pressed during a coronavirus briefing on what would happen to people who contract the virus but do not have health insurance. He responded at length but never directly answered the question.
“I think it’s one of the greatest answers I’ve ever heard, because Mike was able to speak for five minutes and not even touch your question,” Trump marveled to reporters after. “So, I said — I said, that’s what you call a great professional.”