President Donald Trump’s contraction of the coronavirus loomed over Wednesday night’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City.
Audience members and participants had to test negative for the coronavirus as a condition of admission. Unlike last week’s debate between the president and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, those in the crowd were required to wear masks.
Some even wondered if Pence should have been there at all, given that health experts advise a 14-day quarantine for people who have been in contact with those who have the coronavirus, such as his boss, Trump.
It all made for the oddest stagecraft in American debate history: plexiglass barriers between the two candidates, a constant reminder of how the pandemic, seven months in, shows no sign of retreat.
What unfolded was a more civil debate than last week’s showdown between Trump and Biden. But both Harris and Pence consistently avoided answering questions from the moderator, Susan Page, of USA Today.
The two candidates took seats at desks separated by plexiglass panels despite an earlier objection from Pence that there not be one positioned on his side of the stage.
While neither candidate mentioned the divider at the outset of the debate, they served as clear visual signs of just how much the coronavirus pandemic has infiltrated and altered American life. And while it’s unclear how much protection the barriers offered on the debate stage, they offered a reminder to viewers about how the virus had spread through even the White House, infecting Trump and other top leaders.
The pandemic has infected more than 7 million Americans and killed more than 210,000, and it was inevitable with or without dividers that the virus would play a dominant role in the evening’s debate.
Indeed, it was the first topic brought up by moderator Page, who started in immediately with a note that “the coronavirus is not under control” in the U.S.
‘I’m not taking it'
The opening conversation on the coronavirus pandemic covered familiar territory. Harris accused the Trump administration of sitting on knowledge of the virus' dangers; Pence shot back that Biden wouldn’t have closed the borders to China.
But then the topic of a vaccine came up. Page asked Harris if she would take a vaccine released by the Trump administration. Harris said she would be “first in line” if health experts gave it the all clear. But she added: “If Donald Trump tells us I should take it, I’m not taking it.” The White House and Federal Drug Administration have clashed over guidelines for manufacturing and testing the vaccine.
Pence, who ducked a question on Trump’s advanced age to double back to the conversation, called Harris' remark “unconscionable” and suggested the California senator was undermining confidence in a vaccine that he said would be produced in record time.
“Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”
Answer the question
Both vice presidential candidates dodged a question early in the debate about whether they had discussed procedures in the event of a presidential disability with their running mates.
Biden and Trump are the oldest candidates to ever lead the Democratic and Republican party tickets.
And the key role of vice presidents as understudies to presidents has been perhaps more front of mind than usual lately following the announcement that Trump’s diagnosis.
But Page, the debate’s moderator, asked Harris and Pence whether they’d discussed succession plans, each pivoted. Pence returned to a previous discussion of coronavirus vaccines, while Harris spent much of the time discussing her own career record and history.
Page then asked a question about whether voters deserve to know information about a president’s health. Pence again danced around the question, saying he and the president were touched by the outpouring of support following Trump’s positive test.
Harris said that “absolutely” voters deserve to know about a president’s health. She said Biden “has been so incredibly transparent,” then changed the subject to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.
It’s the economy
In another early notable moment, reminiscent of a not-so-distant time when high-level political debates resembled policy discussions more than reality television, Pence and Harris sparred over the economy.
Harris said the booming pre-coronavirus economy touted by the Trump administration was little more than the after shocks from eight years of President Barack Obama’s economic policy. Harris said the tax bill signed by President Trump in 2017 unfairly favored corporations and the wealthy. (The wealthiest Americans did benefit more from the Trump tax cuts; the wealthy also pay the most in taxes.)
Pence shot back that a Biden administration would immediately raise taxes on working families, and that his policies would hinder the economy by placing onerous regulations on businesses. (Biden has said he would reverse the tax cuts given to the wealthy under the Trump tax bill.)
The vice president also said that, when the coronavirus devastated the American economy, President Trump literally “spared no expense” to get the economy back up and running. He referred to the CARES Act, the sprawling relief effort which included loans to small businesses, $1,200 payments to individuals and an expansion of unemployment benefits.
But earlier this week, despite calls for further relief from business leaders, President Trump also called off Congressional negotiations over another relief package, citing Democratic intransigence.
‘Climate is changing’
When it comes to the environment, Pence said a Trump administration will “follow the science.” Yet, he repeatedly declined to side with scientists who overwhelmingly have stated that the climate change is caused by human pollution.
Pence conceded only an obvious point: that the “climate is changing,” refuting science that ties climate change to the intensity of wildfires in the west and the strength of hurricanes coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.
“Climate alarmists use hurricanes and wildfires to sell a bill of goods on a Green New Deal,” Pence said.
Harris, meanwhile, was confronted with her own past support for the Green New Deal, the progressive plan to drastically reduce greenhouse gasses by eliminating fossil fuels in the coming decades.
She offered few specifics on how Biden’s environmental plan differs from that proposal, though she said definitively that it would not ban fracking, a key issue for energy workers in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Biden in the past has said he would eliminate new fracking permits but would allow extraction on existing ones.
America’s role in the world
In the first presidential debate, the candidates got no questions about foreign policy.
But their vice president picks had a healthy discussion about their vision of America’s place in the world.
Pence, in a way Trump has rarely so coherently argued, contended the president’s administration projects strength on the world stage. American allies, Pence said, are pulling more of their weight in conflicts abroad because of Trump’s leadership.
“We stood strong with our allies, but we’ve been demanding,” Pence said.
But Harris contended America’s standing in the world has dropped under President Trump. Biden, she said, would fix that.
Harris noted that in 13 nations that America counts as allies, Trump’s favorability rating has fallen lower than that of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center.
“It’s about relationships. And the thing that has always been part of the strength of our nation, in addition to our great military, has been that we keep our word,” Harris said. "But Donald Trump doesn’t understand that because he doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.
Out of time
At one point during a discussion about controversial remarks Trump has made about those who serve in the military, Pence tried to talk for longer than his allotted time. It was a brief flashback to the chaotic scene at the first presidential debate, when Trump and Biden repeatedly talked over one another.
But this time, Page grabbed hold of the proceedings.
“Your campaigns agreed to the rules for tonight’s debate,” Page said. “I’m here to enforce them.”
Pence ceded the floor to Page. But the next time the moderator asked Pence a question, about abortion, the vice president ignored it to finish his defense of the president’s record of dealing with the military.
No clarity on abortion
Abortion in America faces an uncertain future, and Harris and Pence didn’t help clarify what’s next.
Page tried to get both candidates to explore a scenario under which a new Trump Supreme Court with Justice Amy Coney Barrett overturns Roe v. Wade. Would Pence push his home of Indiana to ban all abortions? Would Harris, the former attorney general of California, ask Democrats in her state to legalize all abortions?
Neither bit, reinforcing a theme of the night: dodging Page’s questions.
Pence lectured Harris for two minutes on Barrett’s qualifications and only in passing said he supports the right to life. Harris, meanwhile, reiterated calls for the Senate to pause the confirmation of Barrett’s nomination until after the election, though she added: “I will always fight for a woman’s choice.”
Transfer of power
Toward the end of the night, Page asked a pointed question of both candidates on the stage: What would they do if Biden won the election and Trump refused to concede?
There’s been growing unease about what could happen after Nov. 3, particularly as Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer. Trump also refused during the first presidential debate last week to promise to refrain from declaring victory until after the election was certified.
Pence repeatedly said he believes the Trump-Biden ticket would win but noticeably did not answer Page’s question about what he would personally do if they lost and Trump refused to concede.
Pence then attacked Democrats for spending “the last three-and-a-half years trying to overturn the results of the last election.” He cited the investigation into Russian election interference, repeating the refrain of “no collusion,” and also referenced the impeachment proceedings that he said were “over a phone call.”
Harris, when asked what steps she and Biden would take if they won and Trump did not concede, said she believed in democracy and the American people.
“Vote,” she said, urging people to make a plan and vote early. “We will not let anyone subvert our democracy.”
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