A vice-presidential (VP) debate is typically an also-ran, garnering little attention and low viewership. Voters are not particularly interested in hearing from the bottom of the ticket. Second-in-command hopefuls didn’t even start having formal debates until the mid-1970s, when Senators Walter Mondale and Bob Dole met in Houston, Texas.
But in 2020, everything is different and even the VP debate has taken on new meaning. With President Donald Trump recovering from the coronavirus and former Vice President Joe Biden’s age (78 in a few weeks), the two VP candidates are in unique positions and each must show he or she is capable and competent to be the leader of the free world.
Held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the debate featured the candidates seated about 12 feet apart, with a Plexiglas partition between them. Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, served as the moderator of Wednesday night’s contest. After a raucous debate between Trump and Biden last week, the VP debate promised to be a calmer contest.
Pence and Harris Face Off
Pence has a reputation as an excellent debater. Harris has a brief but mixed record in debates, but as a former prosecutor, she had the potential to be a formidable opponent. She needed to strike a certain balance, though – when she comes on too strongly, she is perceived as unlikable; when she tries too hard to be likeable, she seems insincere.
The topics of debate – not released before the event – were the coronavirus response, the role of the vice president, the economy, climate change, the United States’ relationship with China, the role of American leadership, the Supreme Court, racial injustices, and the potential results of upcoming election.
Out of the gate, Harris seemed nervous and desperate to assert herself, while Pence projected his trademark calm. At times, both candidates had trouble answering the questions asked. Harris consistently had trouble controlling her facial expressions and frequent smirking, only contributing to her well-known lack of likability. Pence remained calm and measured at all times. For her part, Page frequently interrupted Pence but rarely stopped Harris.
In one dramatic moment, Pence demanded Harris say if she and Biden would pack the Supreme Court. Rather than answering, she ranted against Trump nominating a SCOTUS Justice close to an election. Pence pressed her by announcing, “Yes, they will pack the court,” as he reiterated her refusal to answer the question, a question Biden has also refused to answer. Harris seemed unable or unwilling to answer any questions to which her responses would prove unpopular. She entirely avoided questions about late term abortion, even though her position has been clear in the past; she is surely aware that a vast majority of Americans are opposed to the practice.
Pence also effectively called out the media’s selective editing on many issues, such as Trump’s repeated condemning of white supremacy, and slam-dunked on Harris by pointing out the Democrats’ continued inability to accept the results of the 2016 election.
The debate wrapped with an excellent question from an 8th grade student who wanted to know why Americans can’t be more civil to each other. Pence’s answer focused on the inspiring, across-the-aisle friendship between late Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Harris merely talked about Joe Biden.
A Clear Winner
By nearly every account, the Vice President won this debate with his unflappable demeanor, sharp answers, and reliance on facts. Harris seemed insincere, nervous, and haughty. While she performed well enough for the media to declare her the greatest debater in history, most voters would agree that Pence came out as the clear winner. Whether or not this debate is of any consequence beyond the daily news cycle remains to be seen, but Pence did his job effectively.
The next presidential debate is next Thursday, October 15, in Miami, Florida. As of today, the debate is still on schedule despite Trump’s continuing recovery from the coronavirus. The final debate will be on October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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