Separated by plexiglass barriers and twelve feet apart, the 2020 vice presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence proceeded civilly, with the exception of a few interruptions—a stark contrast to the preceding debate between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.
In a moment of comedic relief sure to inspire memes, a fly landed on Pence’s head and rested there for over two minutes.
Held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the debate was moderated by Sugan Page, the Washington Bureau Chief of USA Today.
Harris’ presence on the debate stage was historic. Her nomination for vice president by a major party was a first for women of color.
Harris stood her ground despite a few interruptions from Pence, reminding him, “I’m speaking.”
Sparring on eight issues ranging from the pandemic to the future of the United States Supreme Court, Harris and Pence often expressed contrasting views, but the debate ultimately ended on a hopeful note, one of unity.
At the end of the debate, Page asked the candidates a question written by an 8th grade student from Utah who had observed partisan bickering on television: “If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”
“We can disagree,” Pence replied. “But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans.”
Pence recalled the close friendship of late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia—a liberal and a conservative—despite their ideological differences.
Harris emphasized Biden’s reputation for bipartisan work, and expressed confidence in his ability to reunite the country through his leadership.
“...I do believe the future is bright, and it will be because of your leadership,” Harris said, addressing the audience. “And it will be because we fight for each person’s voice, through their vote…”
Page wasted no time and started the night with the ongoing topic of COVID-19.
When asked what the Biden administration would do differently if elected in January, Harris said, “On January 28, the vice president and president were informed about the nature of this pandemic,” and that dishonesty from the Trump administration is the reason for the “lethal” consequences which include 210,000 deaths, one in five businesses having closed and 30 million people filing for unemployment.
“The President said it was a hoax,” Harris said of Trump’s response to COVID-19. This statement was deemed misleading by the New York Times due to a lack of context.
Pence, a leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, defended Trump by saying, “President Trump did what no other American president had ever done. And that is he suspended all travel from China.”
Page brought up how Pence attended the Rose Garden event 11 days ago, an event including senior administration who have since contracted the disease. Pence’s response was, “President Trump and I trust the American people to make the choices in the best interest of their health. And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates…”
Harris made a bold statement when asked if she would take the COVID-19 vaccine: “...if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I will be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us we should take it, I’m not taking it.”
Harris and Pence were asked to describe their plans to rehabilitate the economy as Americans continue to struggle financially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Harris was asked whether Biden’s plan to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy would stunt job creation and threaten economic recovery. She emphasized the American economy is only as healthy as the average American family. A Biden administration would invest in infrastructure, renewable energy, scientific research, and education, striving to make college affordable and accessible.
Harris criticized President Trump’s tax bill, claiming that it primarily benefited “the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America” and created a $2 trillion deficit. Biden would prioritize “investing in the people of our country,” Harris said.
Pence was asked about realistic expectations for an economic comeback from COVID-19 and whether it would take months or years. Pence criticized Biden’s plan to raise taxes and take away American jobs by banning fracking and fossil fuels. Pence’s claim that Biden wants to “abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking” was deemed false by the New York Times. Pence’s claim that Biden would repeal all of President Trump’s tax cuts was also found to be false.
The Trump administration’s tax cuts benefited average American families, not just the super-wealthy, Pence noted. He stressed that Americans were supported financially by President Trump during the pandemic. “2021 will be the biggest economic year in the history of this country,” Pence said.
On the issue of racial justice, both candidates were asked to answer the same question: was justice done in the case of Breonna Taylor? In March, Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot and killed by police officers in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. None of the officers involved were charged for her death.
Harris said that justice was not achieved for Taylor. Harris recalled the fatal arrest of George Floyd, a Black man who was suffocated by the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin earlier this year. She expressed pride about the diverse group of Americans peacefully protesting for racial justice, “fighting for us to finally achieve that ideal of equal justice under law.” Harris noted that she participated in peaceful protesting.
Harris promoted Biden’s plan for criminal justice reform, including banning chokeholds, eliminating private prisons and cash bail, and decriminalizing marijuana.
Pence expressed his sympathies for Taylor and her family, but maintained his confidence in the American legal system. “I trust our justice system, a grand jury that refused the evidence,” Pence said. Pence criticized Harris, a former prosecutor, for lacking faith in the legal process.
Pence acknowledged that George Floyd’s murder was unjustifiable, but condemned “the rioting and looting that followed,” which destroyed the livelihoods of American business owners. In a jab at Biden and Harris, Pence claimed that America is not “systemically racist,” and that police do not have “an implicit bias against minorities.” “We always stand with law enforcement,” Pence said.
The candidates were asked about their plans for tackling the looming issue of climate change.
In reference to wildfires that ravaged the West Coast and hurricanes brewing in the South, Pence was asked whether man-made climate change was a contributing factor. Pence stressed achievements in environmental and conservation policy under the Trump administration. He criticized Harris’ support for a Green New Deal. Pence also suggested that poor forest management was the primary cause of the West Coast wildfires.
“The climate is changing. The issue is, what is the cause, and what do we do about it?” Pence said. The New York Times deemed this question misleading as it suggests that the cause of climate change is still unknown.
Harris was asked about Biden’s position regarding the Green New Deal, which she co-sponsored in the Senate. She reiterated that Biden would not ban fracking, but would create jobs through renewable energy, with a goal of net zero emissions by 2050 and carbon neutrality by 2035. Harris described climate change as an “existential threat.” “We have seen a pattern with [Trump’s] administration, which is they don’t believe in science,” Harris said.
When asked whether climate change is an existential threat, Pence said “we will follow the science,” and then returned to the issue of the Green New Deal, which he described as costly and unnecessary.
The Supreme Court:
Both candidates were asked what they want their home states to do if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Given the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat of late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court, a conservative majority would be able to overturn the landmark rule on abortion, leaving abortion restrictions to the individual states.
Pence responded first, expressing his confidence in Barrett’s qualifications, and his hope that her confirmation hearings would proceed respectfully. He recalled the confirmation hearing of now Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in which Harris was a vocal critic. “We hope she gets a fair hearing, and we particularly hope that we do not see the kind of attacks on her Christian faith that we saw before,” Pence said, in reference to Barrett’s confirmation hearing for the appeals court.
Harris responded that both she and Biden are “people of faith,” and they do not discriminate against others for their religious beliefs. With less than a month left before the election, Harris emphasized that the American people should elect the next president, and the winner of the election should fill the vacant Supreme Court seat.
“...I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” Harris said on the issue of abortion. “It should be her decision, not that of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.” She noted that the Affordable Care Act, which protects Americans with preexisting conditions, would also be in jeopardy if Barrett is confirmed.
Pence was then asked how the Trump administration would protect Americans with pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act is eliminated. Pence pivoted back to the abortion issue. “I am pro-life. I don’t apologize for it,” he said. He claimed that Biden and Harris “support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.”
Pence turned to Harris, asking her whether she and Biden would pack the Supreme Court if Barrett is confirmed. Harris did not answer the question. Instead, she used Abraham Lincoln as an example of a president who declined to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat ahead of an election. “The American people are voting right now, and it should be their decision about who will serve on this most important body for a lifetime,” Harris said.
Role of the Vice President
Given the old age of both Trump and Biden, Page repeatedly asked the VP candidates what they would do if the future president became disabled within the next four years.
While this was one of the simpler questions of the night, neither Harris or Pence gave an answer.
Pence began by revisiting the topic of vaccines again and accuses Harris of politicizing people’s lives. “Your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine is just unacceptable.”
He then compared the swine flu in 2009 to COVID-19, saying that it spread to 60 million Americans at the time and if it had been as “lethal” as COVID-19, Biden would have “lost 2 million American lives.”
When Harris was asked the same question about the safeguards of the president, she instead used the time to discuss her backstory and similarities to Biden. “We were raised with values that are about hard work, about the value and dignity of public service, and about the importance of fighting for the dignity of all people.”
Foreign Relations with China
Ranging from China to Russia to Iraq, both candidates gave their input on America’s past and future international affairs.
Page began with a simple question for both candidates: “How would you describe our fundamental relationship with China?”
“China is to blame for the Coronavirus. And President Trump is not happy about it,” Pence said.
When asked the same question, Harris replied, “The Trump Administration’s perspective and approach to China has resulted in the loss of American lives, American jobs and America’s standing.”
Harris asserted that Trump’s “so-called trade war with China” caused a “manufacturing recession.” The New York Times determined this claim was exaggerated.
Pence brought up a discussion about how Trump is currently renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and accused Sen. Harris of voting against the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), a free-trade agreement implemented by President Trump in July, that would “reimplement jobs for automotive workers.”
Harris claimed confidently that President Trump “embraced dictators around the world” and that “Russia interfered in the election of the president of the United States in 2016 and is trying in 2020.”
When discussing Middle Eastern relations, Pence said that Joe Biden had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller, a 24-year-old American woman kidnapped and killed by Isis in 2013, then he praised the Trump administration for destroying the “Isis Caliphate.” Both Harris and Pence paid their respects to the Mueller family.
The Election Itself
In one of the last topics of the night, Page mentioned Trump’s uncooperative commitment to accept a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 2020 election.
“We have the support of democrats, but also independents and republicans,” Harris said. “They are doing that because they know that Joe Biden has a deep, deep seated commitment to fight for our democracy and to fight for the integrity of our democracy and to bring integrity back to the White House”
Harris ended by urging everyone to, “Vote. Please vote. Vote early. Come up with a plan to vote.”
For Pence, the response was direct: “I believe in all my heart that President Donald Trump will be reelected for four more years.”