U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s job Wednesday night was to seem reasonable and reassuring after days of uncertainty stoked by President Donald Trump, who shook voters with his own combative debate performance last week and then alarmed the nation with his positive test for coronavirus.
By that measure, then, Pence’s debate performance with his Democratic opponent Kamala Harris achieved its goal.
Harris landed her toughest attack of the night in the debate’s opening minutes — calling Trump’s handling of the virus “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” Pence sought to defend the administration’s coronavirus response with a selective retelling of key facts, leaning heavily on Trump’s decision to ban travel from China even as the death toll recently hit 212,000.
At other key moments through the night, Pence managed to put Harris on defense, and she evaded answering whether Democrats would expand the Supreme Court or implement the so-called Green New Deal climate plan, unlikely to play well in key swing states like Pennsylvania.
But a vice president merely hitting his marks isn’t enough to change the dynamic in a race where Republicans trail so badly. Democrat Joe Biden’s lead has grown to 9 points on average in national polls, and Trump has had to take a hiatus from active campaigning to fight COVID-19, drawing fresh scrutiny to his biggest vulnerability.
Either Trump, 74, or Biden, 77, would be the oldest man sworn in as president if elected. That notion, mentioned early on by moderator Susan Page of USA Today, also reminded viewers that both of the people on stage Wednesday night could well be gearing up for presidential campaigns of their own in 2024.
Harris, herself a veteran of a half-dozen Democratic primary debates, scored points of her own: first, on the pandemic effort — “clearly it hasn’t worked” — and then by demonstrating empathy and compassion for workers grappling with the economic destruction wreaked by the virus.
Pence’s propensity for speaking in lengthy and scripted soundbites proved largely effective, but his refusal to yield to Harris or Page also risked further alienating his ticket in the eyes of female voters his campaign desperately needs to win back.
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president,” Harris interjected at one point.
At another, as Pence sought to interrupt, she turned with a stare and a smile: “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.”
Pence also had his share of evasions, including on whether he and Trump would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if they lose the Nov. 3 election. But Pence appeared to revel in opportunities to focus criticisms of the Democratic platform that have received little air time in a contest that has largely been fought over the president’s temperament and record.
“More taxes, more regulation, banning fracking, abolishing fossil fuel, crushing American energy and economic surrender to China is a prescription for economic decline,” Pence said of Biden’s plans. Trump called Pence to congratulate him after the debate, a person familiar with the matter said.
None of the moments — except, perhaps, a two-minute interlude where a housefly landed on top of Pence’s closely cropped white hair — seemed likely to resonate for long in a presidential election where voters are far more interested in the top of the ticket. Biden’s campaign was already selling a branded fly-swatter within an hour of the debate’s conclusion.
Pence needed to make up ground, as the president’s coronavirus diagnosis has refocused attention on the pandemic and its consequences — to the detriment of the incumbents.
The president’s diagnosis appears to have spiked fears about the virus, with 72 percent of likely voters in battleground states surveyed in a CNBC poll released Sunday saying they have serious concerns about the pandemic. That’s up 7 points from two weeks ago. A majority — 54 percent — of battleground-state voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the crisis, while 53% said Biden would do a better job.
And voters fault Trump personally for not taking the virus seriously enough; while three in four say Biden has taken the appropriate precautions to prevent exposure to the virus, just 39 percent said Trump had done the same.
The centrality of the pandemic was reinforced by the placement of Plexiglas barricades between the candidates, and rampant social media speculation about whether an irritation in the vice president’s eye could be evidence of a more serious ailment. Pence, who chairs the administration’s coronavirus task force, was left defending a president who has prioritized reopening the economy over the recommendations of the scientists the vice president convenes regularly.
“This administration has forfeited their right to re-election,” Harris said of the administration’s response to the virus.
But neither candidate engaged when the moderator noted that the president’s brush with the deadly virus had only underscored the very real possibility that one of the two candidates on stage could be president themselves someday.
Pence also challenged Harris over a proposal by some Democrats to add justices to the Supreme Court in response to Republican plans to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the court before the election.
Voters, Pence said, “would like to know if you and Joe Biden are going to pack the Supreme Court if you don’t get your way in this nomination.”
But Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general, also landed blows over Trump’s handling of race while signaling to viewers at home that she wouldn’t be pushed around by Pence. She slammed Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn hate groups during the previous week’s debate as “part of a pattern” while repeatedly praising Biden as a wise political hand who “recognizes the beauty in our diversity.”
The debate was also notable because both candidates refused the chance to show distance between themselves and their running mates — despite the chance they could be reprising this battle for the Oval Office in coming years.
Harris held the line for Biden as Pence pressured her to explain her positions as senator on climate change, while the vice president defended Trump’s decision to hold a largely maskless event in the Rose Garden that now appears to have helped trigger the White House coronavirus outbreak.
And despite the contrast, the affair certainly ranked as more civil than Trump’s and Biden’s presidential debate, which was marked with frequent interruptions and insults. It’s unclear after the president’s diagnosis whether next Thursday’s town hall debate with Biden and Trump will proceed.
While Trump’s doctor said earlier in the day that his status was continuing to improve and campaign officials said he was preparing to debate next week in Miami, Biden has said he does not believe the debate should occur if the president is still battling the virus.
“I think if he still has COVID we shouldn’t have a debate,” Biden told reporters Tuesday on his way back from a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.