Takeaways from US vice-presidential debate between Pence and Harris

California Senator Kamala Harris and US Vice-President Mike Pence at the end of their vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City on Oct 7, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
California Senator Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff, and US Vice-President Mike Pence and wife Karen Pence, after the vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City on Oct 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
California Senator Kamala Harris during the vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City on Oct 7, 2020.
US Vice-President Mike Pence during the vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City on Oct 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Vice-President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris met for the first and only vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night (Oct 7) in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The night unfolded civilly, featuring barely any of the rampant interruptions and rancour that had characterised the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden last week.

Here are some takeaways from Wednesday's debate.

1. Coronavirus is Trump's weak spot

The Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic - which has infected more than 7.5 million Americans and killed more than 210,000 of them - was fuel for the Democrats' sharpest criticism of the night.

One in five businesses closed, front-line workers were "treated like sacrificial workers", and 30 million people had to file for unemployment in the last several months, said Ms Harris.

She called the Trump administration's response "the greatest failure of any administration in the history of our country", accusing it of covering up the pandemic and arguing that it still did not have a plan.

"They knew what was happening, and they didn't tell you," said Ms Harris, citing investigative journalist Bob Woodward's findings that as early as Jan 28, Mr Trump knew the virus was lethal, airborne, and affected children.

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Mr Pence, who heads the White House's coronavirus task force, was asked why the US death toll as a percentage of its population was higher than almost every other wealthy country.

He replied that Mr Trump's ban on travellers from China bought time for a national mobilisation of resources to combat the outbreak, without which even more lives would have been lost.

The opening focus on the pandemic would not have been good for the Trump administration. Polls, such as one released by Monmouth University on Tuesday, consistently show that voters trust Mr Biden more than Mr Trump when it comes to handling the pandemic.

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2. China repeatedly used as a bogeyman

The Trump campaign has repeatedly tried to paint Mr Biden as soft on China, and on Wednesday it was no exception.

Mr Pence repeatedly called Mr Biden a "cheerleader for China" and said that the Democrat would repeal tariffs on Chinese goods if elected.

"Biden wants to go back to economic surrender to China," said Mr Pence.

Ms Harris said Mr Trump had lost his trade war with China, while Mr Pence replied that Mr Biden never fought it.

The exchange was an example not only of how China continues to be a bogeyman used to browbeat the other party with, but also of how foreign policy is not a top election concern for many voters - neither Mr Pence nor Ms Harris were willing to discuss US-China relations too deeply.

Asked how he would describe America's fundamental relationship with China, Mr Pence said that China was to blame for the coronavirus.

California Senator Kamala Harris and US Vice-President Mike Pence during their vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City on Oct 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Asked the same question, Ms Harris pivoted to arguing that America's standing in the world had diminished under Mr Trump's presidency, adding that Mr Biden wanted to restore American leadership and alliances.

"Leaders of all of our formerly allied countries have now decided that they hold in greater esteem and respect Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party, than they do Donald Trump," said Ms Harris, citing a survey by the Pew Research Centre. "This is where we are today because of a failure of leadership."

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3. A momentary return to a pre-Trump democracy

There were minimal interruptions in Wednesday's debate. Mr Pence and Ms Harris mostly let each other finish their sentences. They engaged with most of the moderator's questions - even if they did not answer them - and had actual discussions about policy proposals and track records.

That made the debate a far cry from last week's verbal dust-up between Mr Trump and Mr Biden. Political observers noted that it felt like a brief return to the norms of civility flouted by Mr Trump and, to a lesser extent, his political opponents.

Mr Pence's calmer demeanour, in contrast to that of his running mate, could very well calm voters who are skittish about Mr Trump's temperament.

The vice-president also denounced white supremacists more forcefully than Mr Trump had the week before, although, like his boss, he did not explicitly commit to a peaceful transfer of power should they lose the election.

California Senator Kamala Harris and US Vice-President Mike Pence during their vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City on Oct 7, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

4. What went unsaid

The points that each candidate insisted on pressing home, and the questions that they dodged over the course of the night, were revealing.

Mr Pence repeatedly insisted that Mr Biden would ban fracking - drilling down into the Earth to extract oil or natural gas - and raise taxes, forcing Ms Harris to stress more than once that he would not.

A belief among voters that Mr Biden would ban fracking, which is a major industry in the swing state of Pennsylvania, may hurt his chances of victory there.

Ms Harris, on her part, evaded a question on whether the Democrats would pack the Supreme Court - that is, increase the number of seats from the current nine - in a bid to dilute the expected conservative majority.

Mr Biden has not said if he will do so. The Republicans are expected to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in the coming weeks before the election, which could set back liberals on issues like abortion rights for decades to come.

Said Mr Pence: "Once again you gave a non-answer, Joe Biden gave a non-answer... if you haven't figured it out yet, the straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election."

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