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Harris, Pence trade pleasantries but not substance

Candidates dodge key issues during vice presidential debate

From left, Vice President Mike Pence, moderator Susan Page, and Sen. Kamala Harris at the debate in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Associated Press/Photo by Justin Sullivan

Harris, Pence trade pleasantries but not substance

More polite debate norms returned to the stage on Wednesday as the vice presidential candidates faced each other. But Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left voters in the dark on answers to important questions as they systematically avoided direct responses to moderator Susan Page of USA Today.

Early in the debate, both candidates dodged a question about whether they had discussed a transition of power in case something happened to their running mates. The question has gained new significance since President Donald Trump was treated for COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center over the weekend. Doctors say Trump is recovering well, but the issue of presidential readiness remains pertinent. At ages 74 and 77, respectively, Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden could each become the oldest president to occupy the White House.

In a startling pair of non sequiturs, Pence talked about a COVID-19 vaccine while Harris talked about how honored she felt when Biden asked her to be his running mate.

The trend continued as the candidates discussed abortion and the future of the Supreme Court. Page noted that if the high court reversed Roe v. Wade, individual states would have the prerogative to set protections for unborn babies. She asked how the candidates would want laws to look like in their home states of Indiana and California.

Harris said she would “always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body.” That tracks with her record, though she did not dive into details. As attorney general of California, Harris’ office did fight for abortion by prosecuting pro-life activist David Daleiden for his undercover videos that exposed Planned Parenthood’s selling of tissue from aborted babies. Harris also did not name any policy specifics or restrictions she would place on abortion, including whether she supports abortion up until birth.

Pence, too, declined to wade into specifics, though he said, “I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it.”

Harris refused to clear up confusion about whether Biden supports the Green New Deal, something he has distanced himself from in remarks but Harris co-sponsored while in the Senate.

The vice president himself posed the question of whether Democrats would try to enlarge the Supreme Court if they won the White House and a majority in Congress. Harris, like Biden in the presidential debate, deflected answering. Instead, she went into a tangent on President Abraham Lincoln’s example of declining to nominate a justice in a presidential election year. The moderator did not push to get Harris on the record on the issue. At the end, an exasperated Pence said, “I just want the record to reflect she never answered the question.”

Both candidates had strong moments. Harris’ came early on when she put Pence on the defense by asking him to account for the administration’s pandemic response amid 200,000 COVID-19 deaths and another 7 million infections. She argued if Americans had known of the severity of the threat from the coronavirus in January, lives would have been saved.

Pence countered that Trump's blocking of most travel from China had bought America “invaluable time” to mobilize testing and procure personal protective equipment. He also said a vaccine was on the horizon.

Pence gained the upper hand in a question about the economy. Harris said Biden would measure the economy’s success by “the strength of the American worker” and on Day One repeal the Republican Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Pence shot back by touting the strength of the economy pre-pandemic and saying: “On Day One, Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes.” He added: “President Trump and I will keep America growing.”

It remains to be seen whether the debate shifts national polling in the presidential race at all, Pence’s performance received rave reviews from one corner: “Mike Pence WON BIG!” Trump tweeted.

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a former political reporter for WORLD’s Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate.


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