Held at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah, Tuesday evening’s vice presidential debate was a more orderly affair in comparison to last week’s presidential debate. The moderator, Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief of USA Today, was able to deftly move between questions as conversations managed the range of international and domestic policies as candidates sat socially distant with safety shields before them.
Vice President Mike Pence was the first to come under scrutiny over President Donald J. Trump’s recent COVID-19 contraction. As the head of the Coronavirus Task Force, Pence was set on the defensive on his administration’s actions leading up to the current death toll of more than 200,000 Americans.
Senator Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate, said that the coronavirus pandemic was “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”
Pence said that the Trump administration had taken preventive measures like banning travel from China and further stated his confidence that a viable vaccine would be ready by the end of this year. He called Biden’s plan to tackle the virus once in office “plagiarism” of the work the Trump administration had already planned.
When questioned about the Rose Garden Event that is suspected to be the cause of several White House infections, Pence said that the Trump administration “[trusts] the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.”
In contrast, he said he felt that Harris and Biden were actively subverting hopes for a vaccine coming by the end of the year and were instead proposing to enforce stricter social distancing rules that would restrict the recovery of the economy.
Harris stated she would only receive a vaccine that was approved by health professionals.
Page moved on to ask the nominees about the health of each presidential candidate, as both are in their seventies and at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. She also asked about the transparency of each candidate’s health prospects.
In response, Harris said that “Joe has been incredibly transparent over many, many years. The one thing we all know about Joe, he puts it all out there.”
She pointed out Trump’s history of “covering up everything,” she said, including his taxes.
In rebuttal, Pence first complemented Joe Biden’s years of public service and then said that Trump “created tens of thousands of American jobs” and had “released literally stacks of financial disclosures the American people can review just as the law allows.”
The debate then moved on to the pandemic’s effects on the economy.
Harris argued that Trump’s tax reforms did more for the top one percent than for the regular American person and stated her plans for combatting student debt.
“If you come from a family that makes less than $125,000, you’ll go to a public university for free,” Harris said. “And, across the board, we’ll make sure that if you have student loan debt it’s cut by $10,000.”
In response, Pence said that the Trump administration has “spared no expense to help the American people and the American worker through [the current crisis].”
He claimed Biden’s administration would be implementing “more taxes, more regulation, banning fracking, abolishing fossil fuel, crushing American energy and economic surrender to China… [leading to] economic decline.” He said “they want to bury our economy under a $2 trillion Green New Deal” that Harris had helped to co-sponsor in the Senate.
Harris replied with a tense smile and pointed out that she was interrupted by Pence.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” she said.
Harris continued on, emphasizing that the taxes Biden’s administration would impose would not increase for individuals who earn under $400,000 a year. She said the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act would remove protections for those with pre-existing medical conditions and those under the age of 26 on their parent’s insurance.
Page moved on to the issue of the environment, citing dire warnings by environmentalists and scientists that increasing damage by natural disasters were caused by man-made greenhouse gases.
“Our air and land are cleaner than any time ever recorded,” Pence said. “The United States has reduced CO2 more than the countries that are still in the Paris Climate Accord.”
He called these warnings about hurricanes and fires on the East Coast “climate alarmists.”
Harris claimed the Trump administration has “[gone] backward instead of forward” on sustainability. As a senator on the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, she noted that the Trump administration had taken the phrase “climate change” off federal government websites.
She said the United States would rejoin the Paris Climate Accords “with pride” if Biden is elected.
Pence again touted the Trump administration’s desire to place American’s families first and that new environmental regulations proposed by Biden’s campaign would hurt businesses and the economy.
In rebuttal, Harris said that this administration “will have lost more jobs than almost any other presidential administration” and referenced the current dire outlook for young people looking for jobs in the current economy.
Pence further emphasized that the Trump administration has held a hardline with China’s economic policies and feels China is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. He said that he felt the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade agreements had detrimental effects to the American economy and that Kamala Harris was rated one of the most liberal senators.
In response to Pence’s claim that the outbreak stemmed from China, Harris stated that there was a pandemics taskforce in the White House to monitor situations like this and claimed the Trump administration had “got rid of it.” She also said that Pew Research Center found that internationally, the president of China, Xi Jingping, was held in higher regard than Trump.
When Page turned onto the issue of foreign policy, Harris claimed that Trump had failed to back up international allies and had pushed a unilateral and isolationist approach that put national security at risk, including the disruption of the Iran nuclear deal.
Pence, on the other hand, pointed out that the Trump administration had moved the American embassy to Jerusalem and that American attacks in Syria crushed the Caliphate and killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group at the time.
Harris cited that the assassination of Qasem Soleimani placed American troops in danger and that Trump on multiple occasions had disrespected the sacrifice of American veterans and troops.
In an attempt to counter Harris’ point, Pence cited his own family’s history of military service, but Page moved the conversation towards the Supreme Court trying to rein in the vice president’s extended comments.
On the issue of abortion rights, Pence proudly discussed his pro-life beliefs and criticized Harris for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings. He said he hopes that Amy Coney Barrett will be given a “fair hearing” and that “we don’t see the kind of attacks on her Christian faith” in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Harris defended her and Joe Biden’s faith, stating that if elected as president, Biden will be the second practicing Catholic.
She argued that the presidential election merited a pause on the nomination of a Supreme Court justice to allow the American people to have a say in the matter.
“I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” Harris said. “It should be her decision and not that of Donald Trump and the Vice President, Michael Pence.”
Harris dodged a question about potentially expanding the Supreme Court if elected alongside Biden, instead highlighting that Trump’s administration has appointed 50 judges to the U.S. Courts of Appeals, more than any of his predecessors, with not one of them being Black.
Page then turned to the issue of racial justice, citing Breonna Taylor’s death and the recent grand jury trial, asking both candidates if they felt that justice had been served.
Harris said that she and Biden planned to ban chokeholds and carotid holds, and she advocated for the “reform of policing” and further implicit bias training that would work toward correcting injustices in the criminal justice system.
Pence extended sympathy to the family of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd while also stating his belief that there was “no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed” their deaths. He criticized Harris for filibustering a republican bill that he felt would have brought sweeping criminal justice reform.
At this moment, Harris flexed her experience as a former prosecutor, stating she was the “only one on [that] stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assaults to homicide.”
She further noted that Trump had failed to condemn white supremacy during last week’s presidential debate and had called good people on both sides of the violence that had occurred at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina in 2016.
Harris argued that Trump has divided and deepened racial tensions and racial inequality among Americans, in contrast to Biden’s hope to unite Americans.
In defense of the president’s statements, Pence said that the Trump administration has helped the Black community in America through record-low levels of unemployment.
He also attacked Harris’ record as a prosecutor, stating that she had furthered the criminalization of the Black community during her time in San Francisco’s District Attorney’s Office.
Harris countered that she was “the first statewide officer to institute a requirement that [her] agents would wear body cameras and keep them on full time” and the first to mandate implicit bias training in the state of California.
Moving on, Page then asked the candidates about Trump’s statement refusing to endorse a peaceful transition of power after the November election.
Harris repeated Biden’s plea last week calling the American people to go out in vote and said that she and Biden had built a broad and ideologically diverse coalition with the support of former George W. Bush’s cabinet members and those in the military.
Pence said he was confident that the American people would re-elect Trump and that Biden and Harris received wide support because they were part of “the establishment in Washington D.C. and the establishments [that] Joe Biden’s been a part of for 47 years.”
The Trump administration, he argued, had been unfairly monitored from the start of Trump’s term in office and that efforts for universal mail-in-voting would only create voter fraud.
The last question of the evening came from Brecklyn Brown, an eighth grader from Utah, who asked “if our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”
Pence cited the relationship between the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who “were on polar opposites…but were the closest friends,” he said, as a confident example that individuals could disagree “vigorously” but still “come together as Americans.”
Harris took the opportunity to emphasize that Joe Biden had decided to run for president partially after seeing the aftermath of the 2016 rally in Charlottesville.
She said that Biden had a long history of working in a bipartisan fashion and was someone who had experienced heartbreak and family tragedy while still overcoming and uplifting other people.