The vice presidential debate yielded some quiet moments of insightOctober 8, 2020
On Wednesday night, the deputies for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off in the only vice presidential debate of the general election cycle. Kamala Harris, the senator for California, and Vice President Mike Pence went toe-to-toe (or more accurately, plexiglass-to-plexiglass). The coronavirus pandemic accounted for much of the evening’s discussion, and when the crisis wasn’t directly discussed by the candidates, there were still several reminders in the room at the University of Utah: the sparse mask-donning audience, the 12 feet between either party representative, and the fact that the candidates didn’t shake hands at the culmination of their on-stage discussion.
You probably heard that the fly that landed on Pence’s head stole the show, but if you missed the rest of the party, here are the moments you should know about.
1. On if they would take a coronavirus vaccine
One of the selling points that the Trump-Pence ticket has been trying to make is that their administration will release a vaccine for coronavirus in record speed and just before Election Day. In reality it’s doubtful the vaccine will actually be ready before Election Day, and even if it is, distributing medicine to hundreds of millions of Americans will take quite a bit of time. But prompted by a question from moderator and USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page, Harris said that she would not take a vaccine if Trump told her to.
But if the country’s leading infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, said that a vaccine was ready, then Harris said she’d feel more comfortable with the idea. “If the doctors tell us to take it, I’ll be the first in line,” Harris said. The vice president accused Harris of “playing politics with people’s lives” by suggesting that a Trump-endorsed vaccine wouldn’t be safe.
2. On the “existential” threat of climate change
Pence tried to paint the Biden-Harris ticket as radical by pushing the statement that a Democratic administration would sign the Green New Deal and ban fracking. Harris in response pivoted to the political middle, defending Biden’s campaign promise to continue the highly destructive natural gas extraction method. (Biden has said he would not permit new fracking leases on federal land but would not ban the practice outright.) During Harris’s own presidential run earlier this year, though, she had entertained the idea of banning fracking.
Even still, Harris acknowledged that the wildfires in her home state of California and the hurricanes down in the Gulf and on the East Coast were products of climate change. Pence, on the other hand, refused to call climate change an “existential threat,” claiming that while the “climate is changing” it’s unclear why or how (it’s not). He also said that the Trump administration will “follow the science,” as if “the science” has not already indicated what the problem is.
3. On abortion and Roe. v. Wade
Now that the Trump administration has nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a judge who’s said on a number of occasions that the constitutionality of abortion access is uncertain, to the Supreme Court, the pressure to figure out what comes after a potential reversal of Roe v. Wade is high. Page asked if Pence would recommend his home state of Indiana ban abortion in the case of a Roe reversal, and the vice president equivocated, saying he is a man of faith and that he’s not ashamed of his “pro-life” stance but declining to say outright that he’d recommend states ban the procedure. “We’ll continue to stand strong for the right to life,” the vice president said.
Page offered Harris the same question: What would you recommend for your home state (in her case, California) if Roe is overturned? “I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision over her own body,” Harris said. “That is her right, not Donald Trump’s.” Harris didn’t really answer the question either, though, declining to say what she’d recommend California do.
To be fair, both Harris and Biden have said on a number of occasions that if Roe is overturned they would push to legally codify access to abortion. Codification would be more airtight than a judicial ruling because it would affirm that everyone should have access to reproductive health care services, while the SCOTUS ruling says merely that states can’t impede access to care.
4. On Trump and Biden being old
Page noted that no matter what, the next president will be the oldest president ever elected. Biden would be 78 at the time of his inauguration and Trump would be 74. The question, then, is what happens if the next president becomes incapacitated? Given that Trump is currently infected with COVID-19, it’s relevant information for voters. But neither candidate actually answered the question.
5. On Trump’s tax returns … or lack thereof
She wasn’t asked about it, but Harris brought up The New York Times investigation of Trump’s tax returns in reference to foreign and domestic matters. The investigation revealed that the president paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he was elected and owes $400 million to unnamed entities. “We now know Donald Trump owes and is in debt for $400 million — and just so everyone is clear, when we say in debt, it means you owe money to somebody,” Harris said. “The American people have a right to know what is influencing the president’s decisions, and is he making those decisions in the best interest of the American people, of you, or self interest.”
Pence argued that Trump has released stacks of financial disclosures, but never really directly parried the tax attack. Harris and Biden released their own tax returns last week, ahead of the first presidential debate.