It didn’t have the star power – or the tension – of last week’s debate between US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, but there were sharp contrasts on policy and even a party crasher on Wednesday night during the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.
The two sparred over everything from the Trump administration’s coronavirus response to the Supreme Court, from criminal justice issues to climate change. Here are five takeaways from Wednesday’s debate:
Top issue: pandemic
The issue that voters say is the most important – the coronavirus – was a key topic from the beginning of the debate, a debate that had the candidates seated 12 feet (3.6 metres) apart and separated by plexiglass as a socially distanced precaution.
Harris called the Trump administration’s response to the virus: “The greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country”. More than 210,000 Americans have died so far and at least 7.5 million have caught the virus, including Trump himself.
Pence, who runs the administration’s coronavirus task force, aggressively defended its work in dealing with the pandemic and argued, as his boss did last week, that they have actually been very successful.
When asked about the Rose Garden event for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett that is being blamed for causing an outbreak of the virus at the White House, Pence defended the decision to hold such a densely packed event filled with maskless attendees.
“President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates, not just mandates with the coronavirus, but a government takeover healthcare, the Green New Deal… all government control. We are about freedom and respecting freedom of the American people,” Pence said.
Harris shot back: “Let’s talk about respect of the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth. You respect the American people when you have the courage to be a leader speaking of those things that you may not want people to hear but they need to hear, so they can protect themselves.”
On Trump, Biden’s age, they didn’t want to go there
With the 74-year-old Trump suffering from coronavirus, and the 77-year-old Biden the oldest presidential nominee in US history, all eyes were on their relatively younger running mates, two people who could be forced into duty as president.
However, when asked about a plan to succeed their running mates in a worst-case scenario, the 61-year-old Pence and 55-year-old Harris dodged the question, with Pence pivoting to the vaccine and Harris talking about her background.
One noteworthy undercurrent to this matchup: while their immediate futures might involve an unexpected elevation to the presidency, both are also eyeing a more traditional elevation to the Oval Office in four years. There is always the possibility that this get-together was a preview of a 2024 presidential debate series between the two if both emerge as their parties’ nominees four years from now.
Harris spoke about criminal justice in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor cases. She insisted justice was not done in the Taylor case, in which a Kentucky grand jury did not indict any of the officers on charges directly related to her death.
Pence shot back: “I trust our justice system, a grand jury that reviews the evidence. And it really is remarkable that as a former prosecutor, you would assume that an empanelled grand jury looking at all the evidence got it wrong”.
As for the protests that emerged in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers, Harris said: “I was a part of those peaceful protests. … And I believe strongly, that first of all, we are never going to condone violence, but we always must fight for the values we hold dear.”
Pence responded: “There’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd and justice will be served. But there’s also no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed.”
Harris later turned the tables on Pence by referencing Trump’s controversial refusal last week to condemn white supremacists.
“The reality of this is that we are talking about an election in 27 days where last week the president of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists, and it wasn’t like he didn’t have a chance, he didn’t do it and then he doubled down. And then he said when pressed, ‘Stand back. Stand by’.”
Harris’ ‘court-packing’ non-response
Soon after Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, some progressives have urged Democrats to expand the court from nine members to 11 or 13 seats to balance out what is likely to wind up a 6-3 conservative majority.
Biden and Harris have been repeatedly asked whether they support the “court-packing” idea, and neither has directly addressed the question.
Pence criticised Harris for dodging the issue, saying: “The straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election.”
The size of the court has not changed since 1869, although President Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to expand the court in 1937 failed amid public opposition to the idea.
Unscripted moments never escape the attention of social media users, so it is not surprising that when an unexpected guest parked itself on Pence’s white hair about an hour into the debate, Twitter exploded.
⚡ A fly landed on Mike Pence's head during the VP Debate and Twitter lost its mind
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 8, 2020
A fly landed on Pence’s hair while he was in the midst of a serious response during the criminal justice reform discussion, and proceeded to sit there for two minutes, much to the delight of the audience weighing in on social media.
📈 Trending on our site for quite possibly the first time:
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) October 8, 2020