Deputies Trade Attacks in VP Debate

Wednesday night saw Vice President Mike Pence facing off against Senator Kamala Harris in the election’s only vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah. Coming a week after a chaotic and nearly incoherent presidential debate and President Trump’s hospitalization following a COVID-19 diagnosis, the stakes were high for the often overlooked vice presidential debate. Accordingly, the candidates exchanged biting remarks on the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and racial injustice.

Harris opened the debate with a piercing attack on the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country”. Her criticism was heavily focused on reports indicating that Trump knew about the severity of the virus as early as January 28th. “They knew, and they covered it up.” In response, Pence highlighted actions such as the travel ban on China and increased testing to claim that the White House’s response saved millions of lives, while ignoring the central question of why the virus has had such a catastrophic effect in the US. 

The diametrically oppositional nature of the two candidates revealed itself in discussions of economic recovery. While Harris’ recovery plan for the unprecedented recession caused by the pandemic was focused on increased taxation on the wealthy and reinvestment into middle and lower class communities, Pence cited past economic growth as reason to believe in a “V-shaped recovery”, even as data shows financial loss for all but the wealthiest Americans over the course of the pandemic. 

When asked whether he believed climate change presents an existential threat to the country, Pence acknowledged that “the climate is changing” but declined to provide any strategies to address the scientifically proven impacts that fossil fuels have on the climate. Harris, on the other hand, tied the Biden climate plan into the aforementioned economic recovery plan, and confirmed Biden’s intention to return to a global initiative to fight global warming, saying “We will re-enter the Climate Agreement with pride.” 

Harris was also outspoken in her stance on police reform. On the topic of the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers, Harris said she didn’t believe justice had been done, and that police reform was needed to achieve racial justice. Conversely, Pence asserted his sympathy for Taylor’s family while simultaneously expressing his faith in the jury’s decision not to indict any of the involved officers. 

Likely the most telling moments of the night occurred in the questions that the candidates did not answer. Though Harris spent much of the debate criticizing the Trump administration’s policies, Pence was able to put her on the defensive on the topic of whether or not Biden would support adding more justices to the Supreme Court, a question that Harris dodged.

Similarly, in response to the question of whether Trump would concede the election should he lose the race, Pence deflected a direct reply, instead using the moment to decry Trump’s impeachment by House Democrats earlier in the year. Neither candidate was willing to discuss contingency plans in the case of presidential disability, which underlined the heightened stakes present in a race between two of the oldest presidential candidates ever. 

While the debate was heated at times and Harris reproached Pence on more than one occasion for interrupting her, both candidates displayed far more civility than their presidential counterparts did in last week’s debate. As always, Pence stayed consistently on-brand in defense of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, but made a much more significant effort to speak directly into the camera, towards American viewers. And though both candidates continued to exemplify the polarization of the election, a question from a young girl frustrated at the lack of civility in American politics brought them to end on similar notes of a desire for unity. The result was a debate that felt substantive and almost productive – a moment of near normalcy in the midst of an unprecedented period of American chaos. 

For Times Media Mexico
Kieran Hadley in Salt Lake City