Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris were on stage together for their only debate Wednesday night in Salt Lake City. This year, the vice presidential candidates may face more scrutiny than usual from voters, considering both their tickets’ septuagenarian leaders as well as President Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19. To analyze the debate, we gathered four veteran journalists to assess the candidates’ performances, round by round:
Mike Pence’s head-shakes. Kamala Harris’ arched eyebrow. The tale of the opening minutes of the vice presidential debate could be told entirely through body language. The early focus on the coronavirus crisis clearly benefited the Democrat, who could go on offense assailing its mishandling by the Trump administration. Harris was at the ready with facts and figures about the scope of the crisis. And although Pence is far better than Trump at projecting empathy and concern for Americans affected with COVID-19, he was nevertheless playing defense from the very beginning.
Takeaway: Words matter, but sometimes the visuals — including the plexiglass barriers to guard against the virus — say it all.
The first section of the debate focused on the pandemic and the Trump administration’s response, giving Harris an opening to attack the administration for its “ineptitude” and call out Trump for failing to warn the public about the dangers of COVID-19 as soon as he learned about the risks of its rapid spread.
Pence, who leads the White House’s pandemic response, repeatedly deflected by praising “the American people” for the sacrifices they’d made and saying he and Trump had faith in them to do what’s right for themselves and their families. “We’re about freedom, and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Pence said. But Harris was ready to dig into Pence: “You respect the American people by telling them the truth.”
Takeaway: Three themes emerged again and again — accountability, freedom and “the American people.”
Washington bureau chief
What a difference a week makes. Moderator Susan Page started the debate by saying, “We want a debate that is lively, but Americans also deserve a discussion that is civil.” By comparison with the first debate between Trump and Joe Biden, this encounter between Harris and Pence was a garden party.
That doesn’t mean it was nice, however. Harris repeatedly accused Pence and Trump of hiding key information from the American people and accused the administration of incompetence — underscoring the key theme of the Biden campaign. Pence accused the Democrats of trying to impose mandates on Americans, insisting that “we’re about freedom.” So far, neither has scored a knockout blow, but both have managed to get across their key points.
Takeaway: This is the sort of debate the voters were denied a week ago, and that’s an improvement.
This was a round of dog whistles.
Pence: China and Dr. Anthony Fauci and mandates and swine flu and “hearts and people” and prayers and Walter Reed and a consistent incantation of “American people” so much that people should turn it into a drinking game, with bleach the shot du jour.
Harris: Public service and Oakland and immigrants and “first woman” and Kaiser and San Francisco and criminal justice and “Black woman.”
Vice President Mike Pence struggles to revive the flagging Trump campaign as Sen. Kamala Harris rebukes the administration over its COVID-19 response and more in the pair’s tense but relatively civil debate in Salt Lake City.
Pence: Pursed lips and head-shaking and faux gravitas and an ashen face.
Harris: Smiles and enthusiasm and righteous, if understated, anger.
Takeaway: Pence is stewing — but playing a long game. Harris has a strategy that she’d be wise to stick to.
Mason: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking” — Harris’ clearly rehearsed plan for shutting down Pence’s interruptions — may light up the Twitterverse. But Pence landed some solid points in the economic section. He got to speak directly to camera and warn voters that Biden was going to raise taxes (though he mischaracterized Biden’s plan, which would raise them only on the wealthiest Americans). He coined a new tagline for the stakes of the election: “The American economy — the American comeback — is on the ballot.”
Democrats will find a lot to object to over how Pence characterized Trump’s economic stewardship. But the vice president boxed Harris in when she said Biden would repeal the Trump tax bill on Day One, and she did not have a satisfactory answer to how that would affect non-stratospheric earners. (And can we just note, no president can “repeal a tax bill” on Day One. This is not how the process works.)
Takeaway: The Trump-Pence ticket sees the economy as its best chance for reelection prospects, which is why Pence was well-prepared to make that pitch.
Beason: The tone of this debate feels completely different compared with the chaos of the first one between Trump and Biden. Harris presents herself as sensible and studied, but pointed. Pence comes off cool and disciplined in his own way, never raising his voice, even when telling viewers, “On Day One, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes,” or “Obamacare was a disaster,” or when he insisted that the Biden-Harris administration would crush the America energy industry.
Takeway: The candidates came prepared to talk substance and, although they obviously disagree on facts and polices, it feels refreshing
The questions so far spotlight the problem faced by Pence — and. by extension. Trump. “We have a jobs crisis brewing,” Page noted in a question about the economy. A question about climate change began with a reference to wildfires in the West and devastating hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. And the opening questions about the coronavirus, of course, noted the deaths of more than 210,000 Americans.
That’s not because Page is biased against the Republican ticket: It’s just that the events of the past year have created an environment that is toxic for an incumbent. The pandemic, the devastation to the economy, the impacts of climate change are the sorts of problems that would create severe headwinds for even a popular incumbent. And Trump has never been particularly popular.
Takeaway: Pence is doing a steady job of prosecuting the administration’s case, but there’s a reason the Trump-Pence ticket is currently on track to lose by a large margin, and that’s not something a vice president can change.
Arellano: “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Harris has done an unflappable job in the face of Pence’s hushed warnings to the “American people” about a Biden presidency. But he’s coming off as the scold; Harris, meanwhile, masterfully explained a tax-and-spending plan that could eventually total $2 trillion as something that simultaneously attacked the rich and celebrated community college students.
Both are going for the populist bent, which is a problem for Pence: His Midwestern nice is only going so far, but he can’t paint Harris as an out-of-control California elitist hell-bent on killing the heartland. His swings are missing; Harris’ facial expressions are going to launch a million memes.
Takeaway: Harris is lapping around Pence like she’s A.J. Foyt on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Mason: As the night has gone on, Pence has increasingly flouted the rules of this debate. He may do so in the dulcet tones of a radio broadcaster, but he’s breaking them all the same, dragging his answers on well past the time limits despite the repeated protests by debate moderator Page. To be sure, Harris certainly has stretched the bounds of time limits as well, and usually compliance with the debate’s structure is not of utmost concern to viewers.
But this debate comes a week after some epic rule-breaking in the first presidential debate, primarily by Trump. So viewers may be more sensitive to the interruptions and over-talking that are standard for politicians. The low marks Americans gave last week’s debate mean that Pence’s approach is all the more risky.
Takeaway: It may be schoolmarmish to be a stickler for the rules, but after last week’s debate, rules matter more than usual.
Beason: Harris keeps asking Americans to look at the big picture, whether it’s on the pandemic, the economy or foreign policy. She cast Trump’s entire leadership strategy as an ongoing act of revenge, saying he has “a weird obsession” with turning back anything his predecessor, Obama, did, including when it comes to his policies aimed at preparing the nation for pandemics.
She laid into Trump for presiding over an economy that’s lost tens of millions of jobs since the pandemic hit and accused him of valuing his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin more than his own intelligence advisors or the U.S. military. But the most compelling back-and-forth came when the candidates talked about the upcoming hearings to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Pence asked whether Harris and Biden would “pack” the court with ultra-liberal judges. Harris came back with her own reference to the “American people,” who she said should be allowed to express their will on election day before the nation chose the person who would sit on the court “for a lifetime.”
Takeaway: Pence is holding his own, referring again and again to what he sees as failures of the Obama administration, and Harris’, and defending Trump and his Supreme Court pick, Amy Coney Barrett. But this debate has allowed Harris to shine as she uses her skills as a prosecutor to lay out the case against both Trump’s record and his character.
Lauter: This segment of the debate gave Americans a preview of a coming attraction — next week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett. Pence fired a preemptive strike, warning that Democrats would attack Barrett over her conservative Catholic faith. He referred to questions that Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked of Barrett when she was nominated to her current post on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Harris countered by noting that she and Biden are both people of faith and that Biden would be only the second Catholic president. Then she quickly noted her support for abortion rights before pivoting to the Trump administration’s effort to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act. That was the second time in this debate that Harris had noted the administration’s effort to get the court to strike down Obamacare. Democrats believe it’s one of their strongest arguments over the next few weeks, both in the campaign and the confirmation hearings.
Takeaway: Expect to hear a lot about the Affordable Care Act and preexisting conditions over the remaining three weeks of this campaign; it’s a topic on which Trump is stuck with a clear political liability because of the alliance he’s struck with the conservative wing of his adopted party.
Arellano: I’m hearing no plan for the future from Pence other than Trump is awesome and Biden-Harris is evil. Although Harris loves nothing more than to throw shade on Pence and sharp barbs at the Trump administration, she’s at least explaining Biden’s vision, whether you agree with it or not. She also knows how to hold her tongue: Whereas Pence frequently went over his time limit and continued to return to previous topics to throw more punches, Harris knew how to wrap up her thoughts.
Harris, though, made a mistake by bringing up Russia. In a time of coronavirus and a terrible economy, do voters really want to hear about Putin? Pence smirked, then listed off terrorists killed under the Trump administration, and brought up the case of a hostage who died during the Obama administration. Harris had no real retort to that other than bring up insults reportedly Trump used toward America’s military and veterans, which seemed so this summer. On the issue of the Supreme Court, Pence turned it into a referendum on Christianity and the sanctity of life.
Takeaway: Pence is not trying to win more voters for Trump; he’s looking to keep those they have. Harris is keeping hers, and oh-so-slightly going for the other side.
Round 4 and final thoughts
Mason: Mike Pence is the anti-Trump in many ways: soft-spoken, deliberate in his word choice, preternaturally calm. He is a callback to the Republicans of the pre-Trump era, and perhaps this debate would put some typical GOP voters who are thinking about straying at ease (much like he assured evangelical voters in 2016).
But he still dabbled in Trump-esque conspiracy theories, particularly by casting aspersions on mail-in voting. It’s a good way to back up the boss but perhaps could alienate voters who are exhausted by the tumult of the last four years.
Kamala Harris had to have a Goldilocks debate: neither too hot, nor too cold (and yes, this is a balance that is much harder for female politicians to find, especially those of color, per endless research on women in politics). She largely succeeded, lacing into the Trump-Pence record with a smile and talking up her running mate.
Will there be a viral moment that will be emblazoned on T-shirts? Probably not (except for the fly that landed on the vice president’s head, but that’s another matter). Harris didn’t need to outshine Joe Biden; she needed to hype him, and that was mostly accomplished.
Takeaway: Harris had more of the buzz going in, but the stakes were higher for Pence, because he and Trump are trailing in the polls. Neither candidate did any harm, and maybe that’s the best you can hope for in a vice presidential debate.
Beason: There were interesting disagreements between Harris and Pence, most memorably when it came to Harris’ emphatic defense of the protesters who’ve spent months demonstrating against police brutality and racism and Pence’s argument that Americans don’t have to choose between standing up for law enforcement and protecting Black Americans from bias and excessive force in policing.
The pair gave Americans a clear idea of the choices and stakes involved as the nation heads toward election day too. “We will not let anyone subvert our democracy,” Harris said of Trump, who has urged voters in some states to cast ballots twice and who’s refused to guarantee a peaceful transition of power if he loses. Pence fell back on a familiar argument used by Trump when he was asked about the president’s refusal, saying, “I must tell ya, senator, your party has spent the last 3½ years trying to overturn the results of the last election.”
Pence had his work cut out for him in defending Trump, but he rose to the occasion by insisting that the nation’s tensions can be overcome. “When the debate is over, we come together as Americans,” he said. Harris used her closing moments to say that Biden is the right person to make that happen.
Takeaway: There’s hope for us yet beyond 2020. It seems we can still agree to disagree and not leave the room filled with overturned chairs and broken bottles.
Lauter: Americans got a 90-minute preview of what could easily be the 2024 presidential matchup, and while both of the vice presidential nominees spent most of their energy defending their principals, rather than outlining their own principles, there were occasional moments when the focus did shift to what we might see four years from now.
Pence, as he has shown repeatedly over the last four years, is unflappable and sticks relentlessly to his script. He’s also a genuine conservative, whose opposition to abortion and dislike of government regulation is lifelong, as opposed to Trump, whose Republicanism is of recent vintage.
Harris, less known to most Americans, got the opportunity to talk about her record as a prosecutor, something she had trouble with during her unsuccessful primary campaign, and also showed off her ability to deliver tough lines with a wide smile as she chided Pence for interrupting her.
Takeaway: Unlike Biden and Trump, both of these candidates came to the debate stage expecting a return visit in four years. If that happens, they’ll offer American voters a stark contrast in ideology and background that they previewed just a bit tonight.
Arellano: A fly landed on Pence’s hair and didn’t leave that helmet of his for minutes, and I’d like to imagine that the fly whispered to Pence, “You can do it,” and gave him a second wind to land hits on Harris over her prosecutorial record and the Democratic obsession with Trump’s victory that she had no real answers for.
But Harris did what she was supposed to do: defend Biden’s record, and not come off as the antifa radical that Pence tried and tried again to paint her and all Democrats as, and not very effectively. Even in the final, earnest question by the student, Pence couldn’t help but slam the media and say “American people.” Again. If anyone did my bleach drinking game, they could make my T-shirts whiter than ivory by just looking at them.
Takeaway: Civility is cool, ain’t it?
Tyrone Beason: Beason is a political reporter covering the 2020 presidential campaign. He previously was a columnist at the Seattle Times.
Melanie Mason: Mason is a political reporter covering the presidential race. She started at The Times in the Washington bureau and later covered California government and politics in Sacramento.
Gustavo Arellano: Arellano writes columns about California and the West. He previously worked at OC Weekly as a reporter and editor and wrote the ¡Ask a Mexican! column.
David Lauter: Lauter is the Washington bureau chief and has covered Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House and four presidential campaigns.
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