Editor’s note, October 22: This story was originally published on October 7, covering the vice presidential debate. For coverage of the October 22 presidential debate, click here.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Vice President Mike Pence faced off in their one and only debate of the 2020 presidential election at the University of Utah on Wednesday, and the backdrop was a stark one.
The president of the United States, the first lady, and more than a dozen people in their orbit have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days, and the scope of how many people connected to that cluster who may have been infected with the disease remains unknown. More than 210,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, millions have been infected, and multiple states are seeing new case surges. Meanwhile, fiscal stimulus efforts from the federal government have largely dried up, and it remains unclear what, if anything, the administration and Congress plan to do about it.
Harris, the running mate of former Vice President Joe Biden, attempted to draw attention to the current reality in America and the White House’s role in it: President Trump has privately admitted to his understanding of the seriousness of the virus long before it was public, and many people are facing devastation that perhaps could have been avoided. Pence sought to amend the administration’s record, even where sometimes difficult to defend. With a deadly virus spreading, including within the presidential administration, it was hard not to question why there was even an in-person debate taking place at all.
How much do vice presidential candidates and debates matter? Generally, not a lot. And given what’s happening in the broader context — and at the top of the ticket — it’s not clear much of Wednesday’s back-and-forth will break through. It felt like a much more typical political debate than the presidential one: Both participants came with their talking points and delivered them. At the very least, the vice presidential debate was less ... interrupty than last week’s.
Here are some winners and losers of the night.
Winner: Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris came into the night representing a campaign that appears to be winning. Joe Biden is leading handily in the polls less than a month before the election, and if anything, the campaign appears to be gaining steam.
Pence delivered a solid performance — the type you would expect of a moderately successful Republican politician in the pre-Trump era — that may have put some undecided moderates at ease. He spoke in complete sentences, delivered some decent hits, and managed to defend the administration’s record, even if misleadingly. But he’s not at the top of the ticket — Donald Trump is. The guy who seems determined to make things worse in the country at every turn and has spent the past 24 hours on quite a Twitter tear.
Harris delivered a solid, smart performance that reminded the American people of what’s happening and what’s at stake. She is a compelling person and a powerful speaker, and she leaned into that as she often spoke directly to camera.
“They still don’t have a plan. Joe Biden does,” she said at the outset of the night when discussing the administration’s coronavirus response.
Harris may at times seemed to have been sucked into Pence’s frame, but by and large, she held her own. As a Black and Asian American woman, she also faces a different set of standards than white men do.
The polls will ultimately show what Harris’s performance did or did not accomplish. But in an election where women voters — who broadly prefer the Biden/Harris ticket — are going to be a powerful force in deciding the election, her appearance certainly spoke to a decent set of the population. In multiple moments throughout the night, Pence sought to speak over her or interrupt her, an all-too-familiar situation for many women. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation. Okay? Okay,” she said at one point. It was a reminder of why so many women are mobilized against guys like Pence right now.
If basic precautions around Covid-19 were being followed, the vice presidential debate wouldn’t have happened.
In fact, Pence probably wouldn’t be leaving his home at all. He would be in quarantine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are clear: If a person comes into close contact with someone known to have a coronavirus infection, defined as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, that person should get a test and quarantine for 14 days. The CDC says the person should quarantine for two full weeks even if they test negative and don’t develop symptoms.
The guidelines acknowledge the realities that people can still spread the coronavirus even if they don’t show any symptoms, and that tests aren’t perfectly accurate, at times producing false negatives. As the CDC notes, “A single negative test does not mean you will remain negative at any time point after that test.”
Given that the White House is now seeing a large Covid-19 outbreak (with the infected ranging from Trump himself to a presidential valet), and that Pence does daily work in the White House, it sure seems Pence shouldn’t be on the stage. Pence’s team has argued around technicalities about the definition of a “close contact” and whether Pence meets that definition. But that hasn’t swayed experts, who have continued to argue that the debate should have gone virtual.
The presidential commission responded by setting up plexiglass barriers between the candidates. But that didn’t do much to comfort experts. As Columbia virologist Angela Rasmussen said on Twitter, “The plexiglass really brings this laughably inadequate infection control theater set together.”
The result was not just that the people onstage were at heightened risk of Covid-19, but the whole event set a bad example to the rest of the country — at a time when experts say we need consistent leadership, leading by example, on the coronavirus.
Loser: Infrastructure week
Infrastructure week, we barely knew ye.
Fixing America’s infrastructure has long been one of the few priorities that Democrats and Republicans in Washington can agree on. When Trump was first campaigning for president in 2016, he promised to repair the country’s “crumbling” roads and bridges.
On Wednesday, Harris emphasized Biden had “a plan that is about investing in infrastructure, something [Trump] said he would do.”
“I don’t think it ever happened,” she added.
Harris is right. Infrastructure week could have been a bipartisan win for Trump and Democrats alike. But somehow, it has always been a loser. Over the past four years, infrastructure week has become a running joke among staffers in Washington, usually a signal another Trump-related scandal was about to erupt.
Trump had multiple opportunities to pass an infrastructure bill. When he was elected, Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, but the GOP could not agree on the scope and size of an infrastructure plan. When Democrats won in the 2018 midterms, they did it in large part owing to moderate candidates who ran on pragmatic issues including health care and infrastructure.
Under the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump briefly agreed to a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal from House Democrats in April 2019. That lasted a matter of weeks, as Trump soon after became enraged by Democrats’ investigations into his finances and his campaign’s contacts with Russia in 2016.
Any hopes of actually making progress on infrastructure became eclipsed by Trump’s scandals and bickering with Democrats.
Mike Pence is boring. A longtime radio host before he entered Congress, he was known for how “pleasant” and unobjectionable he was. He described his radio persona as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” That dullness may be one reason (though not the only one) why Pence was never a viable presidential candidate in his own right.
But on Wednesday night, Pence’s boringness was a strength. The vice president was coming off not just last week’s presidential debate, during which President Trump was unable to rein in his constant interruptions and sniping, but Trump’s subsequent Covid-19 diagnosis and days of increasingly bizarre tweetstorms containing all-caps word salad. The pressure to seem halfway normal was high. And by cogently stating Republican talking points in ways that might have seemed colorless in another time, Pence ended up looking like a polished statesman compared to Trump.
It’s not clear how much Pence’s demeanor, or his criticisms of the Paris climate accord, the Green New Deal, or Joe Biden’s tax plan, will change the minds of American voters. But Pence may have reassured some people that there is at least one person in the Trump administration — currently battling a raging Covid-19 outbreak and questions about whether the president is being mentally affected by his treatment for the illness — who can calmly explain conservative political positions.
On Wednesday, Trump was tweeting about a “TREASONOUS PLOT” by Biden and “CROOKED HILLARY,” while still recovering from Covid-19. He has repeatedly refused isolation even as he may still be contagious. Pence, meanwhile, slowly and earnestly warned Americans that “Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes.” It may not be enough to make up Trump’s deficit in the polls, but some Republicans and independents may have breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday night: In perhaps the most chaotic week of an incredibly chaotic year, at least somebody in the administration was boring.
The #KHive, some of Kamala Harris’s most devoted supporters, had their moment during the debate this week.
Among her collection of fans and organizers who have long amplified and defended Harris both online and off, many were deeply moved by her historic nomination — and enthused by her landmark appearance onstage in Salt Lake City.
But Wednesday’s debate presented an opportunity for some #KHive supporters to celebrate how far their candidate has come.
Loser: Ordinary Americans impacted by Covid-19
Ultimately, politics is about people and what is happening to them in their everyday lives. And what millions of people are experiencing in the United States right now is awful.
Right now, the US is losing to Covid-19 on multiple fronts. Lawmakers and leaders have been arguing about how to weigh health versus the economy in devising a response to the pandemic, and ultimately, the country appears to have chosen neither.
In Wisconsin, one of the swing states that decided the 2016 election, the coronavirus is raging. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and the governor has authorized a field hospital at the state fairgrounds to try to treat overflow patients. Across the country, tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases continue to be reported each day, and hundreds of people are dying daily.
And on the economic front, while the economy is better than it was in the spring, the recovery appears to be starting to stall, and it’s happening unevenly. The unemployment rate has continued to fall, but white workers are doing much better than Black and Latino workers. Jobs are being added at a slower pace than in prior months, and many people — namely, women — are dropping out of the workforce. It’s not safe to reopen schools, and the burden of child care is falling disproportionately on women in particular, who are leaving their jobs to support distance learning. The extra $600 in federal unemployment insurance dried up at the end of July, and stimulus talks are all over the place.
The headlines and day-to-day politics in America make it easy to forget about what’s happening on the ground. The president is sick, but so are thousands of ordinary people who will never make the news, not to mention those who have died of the disease. The president got to take a few days in the hospital to recover from illness without retribution from his job; it’s not an option for everyone.
In 2020, ordinary American people are losing.
Loser: Susan Page
It was a little unclear before the vice presidential debate whether USA Today journalist Susan Page should be moderating it. Page had thrown an off-the-record party celebrating two Trump administration appointees, including Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma, who billed the government for services related to the event. Verma was recruited into the Trump administration after serving in a similar role in Indiana for then-Gov. Mike Pence. It seemed … odd, to say the least, to have a journalist who had recently partied with a close Pence associate moderating a debate featuring him, even if the party was the nonpartisan celebration of women in government that Page and USA Today claimed it was.
But after the debate, it’s obvious that Page left something to be desired as a moderator. Page spent the better part of the evening simply reading questions off a piece of paper, and loosely enforcing time limits between Harris and Pence. Look, I’m a reporter too, and I have absolutely done the interviews where you write down 10 questions beforehand and run through them as fast as you can because the interview is boring. But that’s not exactly best practices, and it’s certainly not how anyone should behave when interviewing the vice president and a US senator.
The biggest cost of this strategy was that Page simply kept letting the candidates not answer the questions she had posed. Pence rightly pointed out that Harris dodged a question about court-packing — but Pence had totally dodged Page’s question asking if he’d support a state-level ban on abortions in Indiana, should Roe v. Wade be overturned.
Pence dodged another question about whether he would commit to a “peaceful transfer of power,” and not only did Page let him, but she refused to allow Harris to respond when Pence preposterously claimed that Trump was impeached “over a phone call.” Both candidates dodged a question about the age and health of their respective running mates.
Moderating debates is hardly easy, and it would have been difficult for even the most seasoned fact-checker or moderator to force the candidates to conduct an accurate, fair discussion. But it’s not impossible to make them answer the questions put before them. Page failed at that basic task.
Winner: The fly
There was a fly. It flew around and landed on Pence’s head for a while. Everything is bad, and it was a fun, normal, harmless reprieve. There were many memes and jokes online. Hope whoever and wherever the fly is, it survives the evening and has a nice time.