Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, took her skills as a former prosecutor and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee center stage in an historic debate against Vice President Mike Pence, seeking to expose the failure of the Trump administration in three key areas: handling the coronavirus pandemic, securing an adequate stimulus plan and bringing the economy back on track.
And while the mild-mannered Pence had proven himself a more consistent debater than his opponent, he faced an uphill battle — not only because he had to defend the often unpredictable if not questionable decisions of the Republican president, including Donald Trump’s unexpected departure from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5 after testing positive for COVID-19 just days earlier, but because Pence has served as the head of the much-criticized White House task force on the coronavirus.
Of course, Harris had her own hurdles to overcome – being called upon to defend not only her record but Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s as well. In addition, she carried the hopes and dreams of African-American women and girls on her shoulders as the first Black woman and Indian American to ever be nominated as vice president for a major political party.
The 90-minute debate, moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page, took place in Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City in front of a small, socially distanced audience with the two candidates separated by Plexiglas dividers.
It came as no surprise that the moderator opened the debate by asking the two candidates to address the COVID-19 pandemic and its continuing impact on America.
Harris, responding first, criticized the Trump administration for its delay in informing the American public of the serious nature of the virus, pointing out that the president knew the facts on Jan. 28 but delayed informing citizens until March 13.
The California senator said a Biden-Harris administration would require the use of masks, unlike Trump, and call for intensive contact tracing at the national level as part of their strategy.
“Your administration has forfeited its right to continue to lead the United States,” Harris said as she continued her criticism of Trump’s handling of the virus.
Pence countered that the president’s decision to shut down travel to China in January was one that saved countless lives while allowing the president’s team to look into potential testing strategies.
“The Biden plan reads a lot like what we’ve been doing at every step along the way,” the former Indiana governor said. “It looks a lot like plagiarism, which is something that Biden knows something about.”
“Whatever the vice president claims they’ve done, clearly hasn’t worked,” Harris rebutted. “As the head of the task force, you knew the severity of this virus in January. As for the president’s claim that he withheld the truth in order to keep the public calm, how calm were people when they couldn’t get toilet paper, when they couldn’t figure out where their next meal would come from?
“If you truly care about and respect the American public, you should be honest with them,” she said before attacking the Trump team’s reaction for its ineptitude.
And in response to the moderator’s inquiry about the so-called “superspreader” event which recently took place at the White House Rose Garden during which the majority of those in attendance failed to wear face masks, Harris had this to say.
“How can you expect the American people to do what you yourselves [as the Republican leadership] have not done?” she asked.
“As for the following the suggestion to take the vaccine for the virus once one is found, if Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and other medical experts said to take it, I would,” Harris said, referring to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But if Trump tells us to do it, I would not.”
Alluding to the fact that neither presidential candidate has released their medical information, as has been the norm in previous elections, and that either would be the oldest president ever to assume the office, Page asked if Americans have the right to know the complete status of both men and be provided with a more detailed explanation. The question had further importance given Trump having recently tested positive for the coronavirus.
Harris replied, “Absolutely yes,” noting that Biden has been more transparent than Trump regarding both his health record and his tax returns.
Pence agreed but then pivoted by remarking on the exceptional care that the president recently received during his brief hospital stay at Walter Reed after learning that he and first lady Melania Trump had contracted the virus.
Harris would use the exchange to remind Americans that Trump has yet to release his tax returns and that a New York Times report indicated that he had paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency, paying the same amount his first year in the White House.
“I respect the public service that both Sen. Harris and Joe Biden have given to the American people. But the president is a businessman,” Pence said. “He’s said that public statements made about his taxes are inaccurate and he’s already released financial papers.”
Harris would question if the president’s allegiance rests with the American public or to someone else.
On the issue of the economy, the differences between Trump and Biden would become quickly apparent.
With 11 million jobs having disappeared since the start of the year that have not been replaced, and with many of those now jobless being either Black or Latino, Harris said Biden would repeal Trump’s tax bill which “benefited the top one percent of Americans.”
“Biden would measure the health and strength of the American economy on the health and strength of the American worker and family,” she said. “Trump measures it on how well rich people are doing.”
Pence took issue with the Biden plan to raise taxes, stating that the president, in one of his first acts in office, cut taxes across the board for the benefit of all Americans — a conclusion that Harris disputed.
Then, in one of his more memorable comments, Pence said, “Senator Harris, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
For most of the remainder of the debate, both candidates illustrated how effectively they could circumvent providing answers to questions posed by the moderator while utilizing their time to further expound on those issues with which they felt more comfortable addressing.
The topics ranged from America’s changing relationship with China or how to best define the role of American leadership on the world stage to whether the current opening in the Supreme Court should be filled now under the Trump administration or after the general election when America has decided who should lead the country for the next four years.
Comments from the candidates would be far more heated as they addressed the above issues.
“Trump has cost America jobs, lives and our standing in the world,” Harris said. “And he has a weird obsession with wanting to get rid of any accomplishments made by the Obama/Biden administration. [Biden] says foreign policy sounds complicated but says it’s really about relationships. Trump doesn’t understand this because he doesn’t know how to keep his word — he doesn’t know what it means to be honest.”
“President Trump has kept his word, like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem,” Pence said. “We’ve been strong and we’ve been demanding. Now, NATO pays more than they ever have before and we’ve established a strong relationship with our Asian neighbors and the Pacific nations.
“And the president did not hesitate in challenging or going after [Qasem] Soleimani, unlike Obama whose delay cost innocent lives to be lost,” Pence said, referring to the Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from 1998 until his death in 2020 when he was considered the second-most powerful person in Iran beyond Ayatollah Khamenei.
Pence further accused Harris, as part of the Biden and Democratic team, of wanting to delay the process of replacing late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in order to “pack the court.”
Harris would not answer Pence’s repeated question of whether packing the court was the intention of the Democrats.
Other issues addressed race relations, police reform and the justice system.
Harris said, “I believe we will never condone violence but we must always fight for the right for Americans to fight for their ideas. I’m a career prosecutor but we need police reform — bad cops are bad cops.”
Pence said, “I trust our justice system. In the case of George Floyd, I believe that justice will be served. But there’s no excuse for the rioting and looting that have occurred. Your presumption that America is inherently biased is remarkable. We support those who put on their uniforms as police every day. We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and African Americans.”
Overall, the debate would be far more civil with the candidates providing answers about policy to a much greater extent than we saw in last week’s presidential debate. Indeed, the evening gave Americans a much better look at the differences between the policies supported by the two camps as opposed to last week’s debate during which the differences in personalities dominated the evening.
However, in the end, some questions posed by the moderator that could sway those voters who remain undecided simply were not answered.