In a debate that illustrated the stark divide over the nation’s response to the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris clashed over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision-making in the early days of the pandemic.
In a 90-minute debate Wednesday night at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Pence and Harris sparred on topics ranging from the economy and the environment, to the looming battle over Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
But Trump’s announcement early last Friday that he had been diagnosed with the coronavirus kept the candidates’ focus firmly on the pandemic that has resulted in more than 211,000 deaths and more than 7.5 million infections in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said.
“Can you imagine if you knew on January 28, as opposed to March 13, what they knew, what you might have done to prepare? They knew and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax,” Harris said, recounting a report in a new book by Bob Woodward that Trump was warned by his national security adviser in an Oval Office meeting January 28 that the coronavirus would pose the “biggest national security threat” he will face. “In spite of all of that, today they still don't have a plan," Harris added.
But Pence said the president’s decision to close down air travel from China in the early days of the pandemic “bought us invaluable time to stand up the greatest national mobilization since World War Two. And I believe it’s saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.”
A markedly different tone
The meeting between Pence, 61, a former member of Congress and former governor of Indiana, and Harris, 55, a former California attorney general and current U.S. senator from California, marked the second of four debates between the Republican and Democratic tickets this election cycle.
The only debate between the vice presidential running mates struck a markedly different tone than the unruly presidential debate between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, last week. Both Pence and Harris mostly observed the debate ground rules and eschewed insults, instead using a robust policy debate to make their case directly to voters.
Vice presidential debates almost never result in a dramatic shift of public opinion. But with Trump’s recent diagnosis and concerns about the 77-year-old Biden’s age and caution about campaigning during the pandemic, voters have renewed interest in the running mates who must be poised to lead if the unexpected happens.
Pence, who heads the White House Task Force on the Coronavirus, dodged questions about his own recent exposure and safety precautions taken at the White House Rose Garden event on September 26, a suspected “super spreader” event that resulted in the infection of the president, first lady and dozens of other White House officials.
“I don't think that the vice president really addressed very clearly what's been going on in the White House over the last week or two and that's somewhat understandable, politically,” said Rich Meagher, associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College. “It's a dangerous ground. It suggests that the administration might have been irresponsible, or it suggests that they're not taking precautions. Pence did what he had to do to reassure the folks on his side that you know we're taking care of it.”
Pence also reframed the issue as part of a larger debate about personal responsibility, saying, “President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates and not just mandates with the coronavirus but a government takeover of health, Green New Deal, all government control. We're about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people.”
As a measure of precaution insisted upon by Harris and her campaign, the candidates were separated by plexiglass barriers in the auditorium, where anyone who refused to wear a face mask would be removed. The Democrats were angered when some members of the Trump entourage refused to wear masks during the first debate of the season between Trump and Biden.
Pence, who has been in close contact with multiple members of the Trump administration who have tested positive for the coronavirus, did not place himself in quarantine. His doctor released a letter stating the opposite: that the vice president has not been in contact with individuals who had tested positive.
Harris argued the Trump administration had forfeited its right to reelection based on its mishandling of the coronavirus and said a Biden administration would implement a national tracing and vaccine plan. In an NBC/WSJ poll released October 4, Biden leads Trump on handling of the coronavirus crisis 52% to 35%.
Pence came into the debate looking for an advantage with 27 days left in the presidential campaign. The Biden-Harris ticket leads the Trump-Pence ticket nationally by 9.4 percentage points in a Real Clear Politics average of 13 polls taken at the end of September and beginning of October. Biden also leads Trump in several key states that will determine the Electoral College outcome.
Supreme Court pick
Harris, the first Black woman and Asian American to win the vice presidential nomination of a major party, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will start confirmation hearings next week for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, appellate court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett’s nomination could receive a full Senate floor vote as early as the week of October 26.
Democrats have criticized Senate Republicans for the accelerated confirmation process for Barrett, arguing that because early voting is under way in some states, the nomination should wait until after the election. In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) blocked President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, from undergoing confirmation hearings citing the election eight months away as well as Republican control of the Judiciary Committee.
If seated on the nation’s highest court, Barrett would almost immediately turn to consideration of a case that could overturn a key provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the program expanding access to health insurance passed during the Obama administration. Republicans argue the ACA overreaches and that their not-yet-released plan would cover preexisting conditions.
“If you have a preexisting condition or disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they're coming for you. If you love someone who has a preexisting condition, if you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage — they're coming for you,” Harris warned the audience.
But when asked, Harris dodged the question of whether Biden, if elected, would add additional seats to the Supreme Court to give Democrats an advantage.
“The straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court,” Pence argued. “If they somehow win this election. Men or women, I got to tell you people across this country. If you cherish the separation of powers, you need to reject the Biden-Harris ticket.”
The fate of the remaining two presidential debates in Miami and Nashville was unclear following the unruly debate between Trump and Biden last week. And Trump’s three-day hospitalization over the weekend with COVID-19 and his highly publicized removal of his mask upon returning to the White House on Monday evening throws even more uncertainty into the schedule, making Wednesday night’s meeting between the vice-presidential candidates possibly the last in-person debate this year.
After checking out of the hospital earlier this week, Trump said he was eager to debate Biden, but Biden left open the possibility he might not join Trump again on stage. The second presidential debate is scheduled in Miami in a town-hall format on October 15.