Mike Pence and Kamala Harris approached their debate very differently – and it showed.
Hello and welcome to Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris, with Al Jazeera Americas senior editor Jennifer Glasse, political editor Steve Chaggaris, William Roberts, Creede Newton and debate analyst Alan Schroeder.
From Al Jazeera Managing Business Editor Patricia Sabga: After the subterranean bar set by the first debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the VP debate offered Americans a far more thoughtful discussion of policy differences.
When it came to economic policy, American voters were offered competing plans underscoring competing ideologies.
Pence pitched Trump’s formula of tax cuts, rolling back regulations and cracking down on “unfair” trading practices as the best medicine for reviving the pandemic-hit economy.
He also said market forces would spur innovations to deal with the challenges of a changing climate. Harris, by contrast, touched on the highlights of Biden’s Build Back Better plan for reviving the economy – a blueprint that includes hiking taxes on the wealthy and corporations, investing $2 trillion in clean energy, improving child and elder care and using the hand of government to spur innovation and create well-paying union jobs.
Trump’s approach will resonate with champions of free markets, while Biden’s plan will appeal to those who want government policy that aims to redress long-standing and now widening inequalities. There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches.
So much depends on how they are executed – an ultimately, whether the next president can get lawmakers on Capitol Hill on board with their economic policies. After all, it’s not the president who controls taxes and spending. It’s Congress.
The candidates were asked if justice was served in the case of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville police in a botched raid, and Harris and Pence got into a deeper back-and-forth on race and justice.
“I was a part of those peaceful protests,” Harris responded, referring to protests against racial injustice that began after the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis Police custody two months after Taylor. “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 said about the Taylor case, in which a grand jury didn’t indict any of the officers on charges directly related to her death, “I trust our justice system, a grand jury that refused 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.”
With regards to George Floyd, Pence said, “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.”
“The presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist and, as Joe Biden said, that he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities… is an insult to the men and women that serve in law enforcement.”
“When you were DA in San Francisco, when you left, African Americans were 19 times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offences than Whites and Hispanics. When you were attorney general of California, you increased the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks in California,” Pence said.
Harris responded, “I will not be lectured by the vice president on our record of what we have done in terms of law enforcement and keeping our community safe and a commitment to reforming the criminal justice system of America,” said Harris, who was the attorney general of California and district attorney of San Francisco before running for Senate in 2016.
From Al Jazeera Managing Business Editor Patricia Sabga: Harris also took aim at the US-China trade war, claiming Trump has lost the trade war – that if the goal was to create more US manufacturing jobs, then the trade war backfired because US factory jobs and output started declining after his administration started slapping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports.
But though saving US factory jobs was clearly an overriding goal, it was not the only one for the Trump administration.
Trump had a long list of grievances against China. Among the top ones: the administration has accused Beijing of intellectual property theft. It also wants to stop Beijing’s practise of forcing US companies to transfer technological know-how to Chinese firms as a condition for doing business there.
“The American people are voting right now, and it should be their decision about who is serving on (the Supreme Court) for a lifetime,” Harris said.
President Trump has nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court and the Republican-led Senate is moving forward quickly with her confirmation. Democrats argue the nomination to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg falls to whoever wins the election.
Pence warned that the Democrats are planning to pack the Supreme Court if they win the election.
“If they somehow win this election, men and women, I gotta tell you people across this country, if you cherish our Supreme Court, if you cherish the separation of powers, you need to reject the Biden-Harris ticket come November,” Pence said.
From Al Jazeera Managing Business Editor Patricia Sabga: Harris pointed out that Trump could leave office with more jobs being lost on his watch than were created. This could happen. However, it is a stretch to solely blame Trump’s policies for the massive job losses that resulted from the pandemic.
Because it was not just the US economy that tanked. The global economy tanked. Case in point – tens of thousands of US energy jobs were lost to the pandemic because global demand for crude oil plummeted.
Al Jazeera debate analyst Alan Schroeder: “Moderator Susan Page of USA Today has done an excellent job keeping this debate on track. Furthermore, her questions have been very well framed. This doesn’t mean the questions are always being answered, but it is clear she has thought very carefully about what she wants to ask.”
“After the strike on Soleimani, there was a counterstrike on our troops in Iraq and they suffered serious brain injuries,” Harris said.
“And do you know what? Donald Trump dismissed them as headaches. And this is about a pattern of Donald Trump’s, where he has referred to our men who are serving in our military as suckers and losers,” Harris said.
She also charged that Trump does not “care” about reports Russia had put “bounties on the heads of American soldiers” in Afghanistan and failed to confront Russia Vladimir Putin about it.
Harris was asked what her “definition of the role of American leadership” is in 2020 and she swiped at Trump’s foreign policy record.
“You gotta keep your word to your friends. You gotta know who your adversaries are and keep them in check. He has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world,” Harris said.
“It’s about relationships. We keep our word, but Donald Trump doesn’t understand that because he doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.”
In his response, Pence referenced Kayla Mueller, who was kidnapped and killed by ISIL (ISIS) and whose family was in the audience at the invitation of Pence. He blamed the Obama administration, and Biden, for not acting to save her life.
“When Joe Biden was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller,” Pence responded, adding that her family believes “If President Trump had been president … Kayla would be alive today.”
“China and the World Health Organization did not play straight with the American people,” Pence said.
“They did not let our personnel into China to get information on the coronavirus until the middle of February,” Pence continued.
Mike Pence is doing GREAT! She is a gaffe machine.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2020
Biden opposed Trump’s decision to restrict flights from China, claiming it was “hysterical”, Pence said
The president lost his trade fight with China and has lost more jobs than any other US president, Harris said, leaving young Americans coming out of college worrying about whether they will be able to find jobs and many Americans worrying about paying rent.
“This is where the economy is right now, and it is because of the catastrophe and the failure of this administration,” Harris said.
Pence retorted that Trump took on a fight with China that “Joe Biden never fought”.
From Al Jazeera Managing Business Editor Patricia Sabga: Pence and Harris spun different narratives of Trump’s pre-COVID economy.
Harris said Trump passed a tax bill that benefited the rich. While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act did benefit the wealthy more than low and middle-income workers, it did cut taxes for American households up and down the income scale.
Pence credited Trump’s policies, including tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and a crackdown on trade practices the Trump administration considers “unfair”, for the economy’s strength pre-COVID.
But the jury is out on how much tax cuts have contributed to pre-COVID growth. Moreover, manufacturing jobs and factory output started to decline after Trump launched a trade war with China in 2018.
Al Jazeera debate analyst Alan Schroeder: “The tight shots of the candidates tell two very different visual stories: Pence is tight-mouthed, and his eyes regularly flash with anger. Harris beams and seems amused, even when under attack.”
Pence again claimed something President Trump regularly claims: “According to all of the best estimates, our air and land are cleaner than any time ever recorded, among the cleanest in the world.”
That’s mostly false, according to fact-checking organisation PolitiFact.“No ranking places the United States at the top of their list for cleanliness,” they conclude.
— PolitiFact (@PolitiFact) October 8, 2020
“Saying something nice about your opponent, as Pence did in congratulating Harris on the ‘historic nature’ of her nomination, has become a feature of debates in recent years,” says Al Jazeera debate analyst Alan Schroeder.
“It’s not a bad idea, especially in a time of polarisation – and especially after Trump’s nastiness toward Biden last week.”
“On day one, Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes,” Pence said.
“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to raise taxes. They want to bury our economy under a $2-trillion ‘Green New Deal’,” Pence said, by banning fracking and fossil fuels.
Harris said Biden has declared he would not raise taxes on Americans making less than $400,000 a year in income.
“Pence has an almost impossible job defending the White House’s response to the pandemic,” Al Jazeera debate analyst Alan Schroeder argues, “but when he uses a phrase like ‘you’ll always be in our hearts and prayers,’ it’s more insulting than comforting.”
The White House Rose Garden event where President Trump announced Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee has been pinpointed as the event responsible for the spread of coronavirus among the White House staff.
Pence addressed that, arguing that holding the event, despite the risks, is about “respecting freedom”.
“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 health care, the green new deal all government control. We are about freedom and respecting the 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.”
“I want the American people to know that the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” Pence said.
“President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done. That was, he suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world. Now, senator, Joe Biden opposed that decision.”
Pence, instead of answering the second question on the role of the vice president, scolded Harris for saying she did not trust the Trump administration’s accelerated efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.
“The reality is we are going to have a vaccine in record time,” Pence said, telling Harris to “Stop playing politics with people’s lives”.
“Senator Harris, please stop undermining Americans’ confidence in a vaccine,” Pence said.
Al Jazeera debate analyst Alan Schroeder: “In her first answer, Kamala Harris previews how she will argue her case: Start with a strong, detailed critique of the Trump administration, then pivot to how a Biden administration would do better.
“This ‘two-for-one’ style of responding is something candidates practice in their mock debate sessions.”
The first question from moderator Susan Page went to Senator Kamala Harris on the coronavirus pandemic. “What would a Biden administration do in January and February that a Trump administration wouldn’t do?” Page asked.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any administration in our country,” Harris responded, adding that the Trump administration “knew” how serious the coronavirus threat was and “covered it up.”
“They minimised the seriousness,” Harris said. Joe Biden has “a national strategy for testing and contacting tracing” that would be implemented, Harris said.
Susan Page of USA Today will be moderating tonight’s debate and, prior to the start, she asked the audience to hold their applause throughout.
“This debate is not about you and me. It is about the millions of Americans who will be watching it,” Page said. “During the debate, please do not cheer, boo, hiss, or laugh.”
“And if you could send me some good karma, that would be appreciated,” she quipped. “But quietly.”
Tonight’s debate is taking place in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The pool reporter inside describes the set -up there: “The stage is set up with three desks and chairs set about 12 feet apart for the two candidates and the moderator, separated by plexiglass screens… Some 20 seats for guests are set up in front of the stage, at least 6ft (1.8m) apart.”
The University of Utah selected 60 students via a lottery to sit in the audience, and the tickets they distributed included a liability waiver for the Commission on Presidential Debates and the university regarding coronavirus: “The ticket holder relieves the CPD and the event site host of any and all liability … including in the event of … sickness (including Covid-19).”
In 1984, the first-ever general election debate between male and female candidates proved treacherous for then-Vice President George HW Bush, Al Jazeera debate analyst Alan Schroeder notes. About halfway through the debate, opponent Geraldine Ferraro delivered a soundbite that resonated with millions of American women: “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronising attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
For the remainder of the debate, Bush never regained his footing.
Various women’s groups around the US will gather as Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour on a major ticket, takes the debate stage tonight.
Activist groups, college associations and individuals around the country have organised mostly online “watch parties” as Harris debates US Vice President Mike Pence.
“I really can tell that Kamala is ready,” said Rahdiah Barnes, president of the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications in New York, which pushes for diversity in media, who has organised a watch party. “This is history. She has something to prove, and I’ve heard her say a couple of things over the past couple days, so I can know that she’s getting ready for war.”
Vice President Pence’s campaign initially rejected the proposal to have plexiglass barriers between the candidates as a coronavirus precaution, but later relented.
Pre-debate haggling about production details dates all the way back to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, points out AlJazeera.com debate analyst Alan Schroeder. In past years, on-site negotiators have battled about lighting, lecterns, room temperature, reaction shots – even the colour of the background. Who could have imagined that, in 2020, the dispute would involve plexiglass?
Even if Donald Trump had not become the international poster child for COVID-19, he was always destined to loom over the vice-presidential debate, especially after his disastrous opening encounter with Joe Biden, writes presidential debate expert Alan Schroeder.
Now, the president’s illness and the uncertainty shrouding the state of his health present Republican running mate Mike Pence with a tricky challenge. It also complicates the task of Democratic nominee Kamala Harris, leaving her with a delicate line to walk. Even in absentia, even from his sickbed, Trump looms over centre stage at the vice-presidential debate.