The vice-presidential debate Wednesday night was more subdued than the first presidential debate last week, which was marked by Donald Trump’s numerous interruptions of Joe Biden, but it was still marked by stark policy differences.
Democratic nominee Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, faced off with Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, with Susan Page of USA Today moderating. Harris and Pence often got contentious, but they didn’t and probably couldn’t get to the level of vitriol that Trump displayed last week.
They sparred over the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act, and more. The candidates were separated by plexiglass shields for protection from the virus, for which Trump was recently hospitalized. Harris sharply criticized the administration’s response to the pandemic, which has taken the lives of more than 210,000 Americans as Trump publicly downplayed it while privately acknowledging COVID’s lethality.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” the senator from California said. “This administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this.”
Pence defended the administration, saying Trump prevented the pandemic from becoming worse by suspending all travel from China, a move the vice president said Biden opposed. Neither statement is true; there were numerous exceptions to the travel ban, and while Biden decried Trump’s xenophobia, he did not speak out on the travel restrictions.
When Page asked Pence how the administration could expect the American people to take safety measures when its leaders haven’t been doing so, particularly noting the recent White House Rose Garden event to announce the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Attendees were seated close together, and few of them wore masks.
Pence responded that the business of the president goes on, but that Trump “trusts the American people to make the best decisions about their health” and shows respect for them. Harris countered, “You respect the American people when you tell them the truth.”
Pence contended that Harris and Biden are undermining confidence in a COVID-19 vaccine, which Trump has said will be available soon, possibly before the election. Some scientists believe the administration is rushing the vaccine approval process for political purposes, possibly bypassing concerns about its safety and effectiveness. Harris said that if doctors and scientists advise her to receive the vaccine, she’ll take it, but not if it’s Trump telling her.
The vice president took issue with Page's question about the information that Trump's doctors have put out on his COVID-19 treatment. Page said the physicians have often been less than forthcoming, and some of the information they have released has been misleading. Pence asserted the doctors have been transparent, but Harris disagreed, saying Trump has not been honest about his health or his finances. Trump has not released his income tax returns, although it is common for presidents and presidential candidates to do so. But The New York Times recently reported that he paid only $750 in federal income tax in his first year as president.
“I literally said, you mean $750,000? And it was like, no, $750. We now know Donald Trump owes — and is in debt — for $400 million. And just so everyone is clear, when we say in debt, it means you owe money to somebody.” Pence countered that the Times report is not accurate.
On health care, Harris noted that the Trump administration is seeking to have the Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, a move that would wipe out guarantees of coverage for preexisting conditions and more. “If you have a preexisting condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you,” she said, facing the camera directly.
Pence said the ACA has been “a disaster” and that Trump does have a plan for improving health care and maintaining coverage of preexisting conditions, although the administration has yet to unveil any health care plan. And the ACA has greatly reduced the number of uninsured Americans.
If Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court, the case on the ACA will likely be one of the first she hears. She is noted for her conservatism, including opposition to abortion rights. If Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, is overturned, states would be free to restrict or ban the procedure. Page asked Pence if he would favor enacting a ban if he were still governor of Indiana.
He pretty much dodged the question, although he called himself pro-life and said Biden and Harris favor allowing abortion until the moment of birth, which is patently untrue; they support the parameters of Roe, which allows restrictions during the final trimester of a pregnancy, and most abortions occur before then anyway.
The timing of Barrett's nomination to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been controversial, coming so close to the presidential election. When Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland as successor the following month, eight months before the election, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, did not let Garland come to a vote. But McConnell is willing to push a vote on Barrett through quickly.
Pence said it is appropriate to move forward with confirmation proceedings on Barrett, as has happened numerous times when a Supreme Court vacancy occurred during an election year. Harris pointed out, however, that when a vacancy occurred 27 days before the election of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln declined to put forth a nominee, waiting to do so until after he was reelected (something that he was not at all assured of, given the toll the Civil War had taken on the nation). That was the vacancy that occurred closest to a presidential election in U.S. history; the one created by Ginsburg's death is the second closest.
Harris also called out Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacy in his debate with Biden last week, and for the president’s remarks about “fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist demonstration and counterdemonstration in Virginia in 2017. Pence claimed the “fine people” comment referred to people on both sides of the debate over Confederate monuments, and he took Biden and Harris to task for saying there is systemic racism in the U.S. Pence contended this is an insult to police officers, and he asserted that Trump had denounced white supremacists "repeatedly."
The candidates differed on whether justice was served in the case of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who died after having been shot numerous times by police entering her apartment in Louisville, Ky., on a search warrant. Only one of the three officers involved in the case was indicted by a grand jury, and he was not charged in Taylor's death but rather with endangering her neighbors. Harris said she did not think justice was done, but Pence objected to Harris, as a former prosecuting attorney, questioning a grand jury's findings, even though a member of the grand jury has raised concerns.
The candidates further displayed opposing postures on how to deal with climate change, the economy, relations with Russia and China, and many other issues; LGBTQ+ issues did not come up, although Harris is a known supporter of LGBTQ+ equality and Pence is a longtime opponent.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, lamented the absence of these issues, releasing this statement: “Tonight, Susan Page had the opportunity to highlight the stark contrast between Mike Pence — the Vice President with the longest and most problematically anti-LGBTQ record in decades — and Kamala Harris, a true champion of our community. Unfortunately for the 57 million Equality Voters and 11 million LGBTQ voters eager to hear from the candidates on these issues, Page did not ask any questions about the candidates’ LGBTQ records — a disservice to voters across the country. The LGBTQ community is in crisis, with increases in violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people, an economy in freefall disproportionately impacting LGBTQ people’s income and savings, and a partisan attack on access to health care for millions of people. We will continue our fight to ensure that our voices are heard and the issues affecting our community are addressed.
“Throughout the debate, Mike Pence talked over both Senator Harris and moderator Susan Page. His condescending display toward these two powerful women is further confirmation of the Trump-Pence campaign’s blatant disrespect for women. Thankfully, Kamala Harris clearly demonstrated that she is not only capable but unrivaled in her ability to lead our nation as Vice President as she prosecuted the case against a reckless President and Vice President who have failed at every opportunity to manage this pandemic and the economic fallout that it has wrought. Over the next 27 days, we must unite in working to elect the most pro-equality ticket in U.S. history and true allies and advocates for our community: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”
This was the only vice-presidential debate of the campaign. Biden and Trump are scheduled to debate again October 15, pandemic allowing. Biden has said he will not participate in the debate if Trump is not cleared of COVID.