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Vice-Presidential Candidates Square Off in Debate


The first and only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election took place on Wednesday at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. But this vice presidential debate is different than in years past. With President Trump’s positive diagnosis for COVID-19, Pence and Harris were seated twelve feet apart and the stage had plexiglass barriers to separate the two candidates. The moderator, Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today, touched on nine topics in 10 minute segments, including COVID-19, the power of the vice president, the economy, climate change, jobs, U.S.-China relations, the Supreme Court, racial justice, and the election. The candidates spoke for two minutes on questions in each category, followed by a six minute open discussion. Neither candidate gave straightforward answers to the questions posed, and the moderator stressed that candidates cannot interrupt each other.

The debate started off with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The candidates were asked what they would do to bring the virus under control. Harris came out swinging, calling the response to the pandemic “the greatest failure of any administration.” Instead of directly responding to the question, Harris challenged the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis. Page then asked Pence why so many more people have died in the United States than in other wealthy countries. He referenced the president’s travel ban on China. He also talked about therapeutics and vaccines that are being rapidly developed under Operation Warp Speed. He also mocked Biden’s plan, calling it plagiarism, saying, “That’s something he [Biden] knows a bit about,” referencing when Biden supposedly plagiarized in high school. Harris was visibly upset about what the vice president argued. Pence reiterated that “One life lost is too much.” The debate then shifted to the elephant in the room, the Rose Garden event where it is suspected the president was exposed to COVID. Harris pressed Pence on the tapes that revealed Trump knew about the severity of COVID-19 before he publicly disclosed the information to the American people in March.

The topic shifted to the power of the vice president, highlighting the ages of the presidential candidates – Trump is 74, and Biden will be 78 if inaugurated. Pence reassured Americans that they will have a vaccine by the end of this year, and contrasted the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 and the Obama administration’s handling of the swine flu pandemic, saying that many more people would die if Biden was in charge. Harris expressed her joy after she got the call to be the vice presidential candidate. She then went on to highlight her achievements in her political career, and said that she and Biden have the same values. Page also pressed both candidates on the issue of transparency of the president’s health. Pence said that voters do have a right to know about the president’s health. Harris also reiterated this statement, but then pivoted to the issue of President Trump’s taxes, prevalent because of a New York Times report that said he had only paid $750 in income tax over the past ten years. Pence said that the president has turned over stacks of financial disclosures for the American people to review. He also criticized Biden and Harris’ tax plan.

The debate moved on to the economy. Page asked Harris if raising taxes would hurt the economy. Harris said that Trump only cares about the rich and that Biden would repeal the tax bill Trump passed, saying that student loan debt would be cut by 10% and that she would measure the economy instead by the strength of the American worker. Pence said that the tax bill the administration passed saved people money and created jobs, adding that the Biden-Harris administration would raise taxes on the first day. He also criticized the progressive Green New Deal, saying that the measure would bury the country in debt and said that 2021 would be the greatest economic year on record. Things got heated after this exchange. Harris said that Biden would not end fracking, as the Green New Deal advocated, and said that Biden was the architect of the Recovery Act, taking the country out of the 2008 recession. She also referenced the Affordable Care Act, prevalent because the Supreme Court is going to be judging its constitutionality soon. Pence called Obamacare a “disaster,” and said Biden’s climate plan was not much different than the original Green New Deal.

The debate then pivoted to climate change, important as Hurricane Delta, a category four storm, is barreling through Mexico and set to hit New Orleans in the next few days. Pence said that the country has reduced carbon dioxide emissions more than countries still in the Paris Climate Accord, and referenced the Outdoors Act that Trump signed into law. Page then questioned Harris about Biden’s stance on the Green New Deal, to which she responded forcefully that Biden would not ban fracking and went on to describe past natural disasters, saying that “[Biden] believes in science,” while comparing Trump’s response to the same issue, to which he said, “Science doesn’t know.” She said the Trump administration has gone backward rather than forwards in dealing with this “existential threat.” Pence again criticized Biden’s plan to raise taxes on the first day, saying that the Trump administration “will follow the science.”

Harris then moved the debate over to the issue of jobs. She referenced the Trump administration’s trade war with China, and said that by the end of the administration, many jobs will be lost. She also talked about renters and landlords who are worrying about how they will get money in their pockets. Pence rebutted that 500,000 new jobs were created, and that this growth would continue throughout the administration.

The debate then went on to the relationship between the U.S. and China. Page pressed Pence about the fundamental relationship between the two countries. Pence responded by saying Harris voted against the USMCA, referencing the North American trade deal Trump negotiated. He also said that China was responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic and reiterated Trump’s travel ban on China after the onset of the coronavirus. Harris said that through the relationship with China, the Trump administration was responsible for Americans losing their lives. She also said that 300,000 jobs were lost as a result of the administration’s trade war with China. She then compared foreign policy to relationships and said Trump has “betrayed our friends and embraced dictators.” She then went on to talk about Russian interference in presidential elections, saying Trump takes the word of Putin more than that of his intelligence community. Pence said that the administration has been loyal to our allies and stood strong toward those who would do America harm. He also talked about Trump mobilizing the military and destroying the ISIS caliphate, referencing the story of Kayla Miller, who was killed by ISIS under the Obama administration. Pence also said that the administration did the right thing backing out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Harris then recalled when The Atlantic broke the news that Trump had called military heroes “losers” and “suckers.” She continued to the issue of Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan. The debate got contentious when Pence pressed for equal time to respond to Harris’ criticism.

The debate then shifted to the Supreme Court, and President Trump’s appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the bench. Pence defended the nomination based on Coney Barrett’s qualifications, while Harris argued for letting the next president fill the vacancy.

The debate then moved to the topic of racial justice and talked about the case of Breonna Taylor. Harris said that she believed that justice was not served in her case, and also referenced 8:46, which is synonymous with the time when George Floyd was “tortured” in Minneapolis, and the protests over racial justice that ensued. She said that Biden will get rid of private prisons and ban chokeholds and carotid holds. Pence responded that his “heart breaks” over the loss of any American life, but said that he trusts the criminal justice system in America. He also noted the protests and looting that continues to be ongoing. He also said that Biden and Harris’ policies are an insult to officers and said that the Trump administration supports the police. Harris talked about her prosecutorial record and said that Trump didn’t condemn white supremacy at the past debate, to which Pence responded, “Not true.” She continued to argue against the President’s Muslim travel ban, the protests in Charlottesville, and his insults to Mexicans. Pence argued against Harris’ record, saying that people were incarcerated disproportionately under her tenure and said that Harris’ record “speaks for itself.”

The last issue of the debate was the election. Harris was asked what she would do if President Trump would refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if the Biden-Harris administration was elected. She said that the Biden administration will restore integrity to the office and urged Americans to vote, so our democracy would not be “subverted.” Pence said that his ticket would win the election again and highlighted the record of President Trump’s, saying the movement of people for Trump is getting stronger. Pence also said that the Democratic Party has been trying to reverse the results of the elections over the past three years. He also reiterated that universal mail-in voting would lead to fraud. Page went on to read a question from an 8th grader who said that on the news, she sees “citizen fighting against citizen.” Pence said that America always comes together in times of hardship. Harris said that the future was bright and highlighted Biden’s record of working across the aisle.

All in all, the vice presidential debate was less contentious and the moderator did a good job making sure both campaigns stuck to the rules. The debate focused more on policy, but both candidates gave indirect answers to the questions. COVID-19 was a huge topic in the debate, with 210,000 Americans dead and the growing outbreak in the White House. Harris was visibly expressive throughout the discussion, and Pence was able to deliver some punches of his own. This was a much more impactful debate than the first presidential debate. The VPs’ work is done now; we’ll see if they can sway voters over to their respective sides.