To be fair to Mike Pence, he had an unenviable job. Fresh off the worst week of the worst administration in American history, with the White House in meltdown after President Trump’s COVID diagnosis, at least 34 staff and their contacts now testing positive for the disease and the stock market diving on news that Trump refuses to negotiate further coronavirus relief, he had to climb on the debate stage and attempt to put a good face on things. And there, eager to meet him, was courtroom warrior Kamala Harris sharpening her saber with a smile.
Nothing went Pence’s way. It started with the plexiglass, which, despite Pence’s earlier objections, surrounded the Chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on the debate stage — a concrete reminder of his administration’s stunning failure to contain the pandemic.
Pence himself, red-eyed and pale, looked sick — especially next to the beaming Harris, who appeared to be enjoying herself.
And as if the coronavirus weren’t enough, the fly that landed on the vice president’s carefully coiffed head during the debate went viral. (A Twitter account “Mike Pence’s Fly” declared, as the debate wrapped up, “That was awful.”)
Then there were the questions. Moderator Susan Page of USA Today pulled no punches. She began with a question about why COVID-19 infections and mortality are worse in the United States than in any other wealthy country on Earth, moved through Pence’s own maskless attendance at a superspreader event at the White House, covered the disastrous U.S. economy, asked if Pence thinks climate change is an existential threat (he demurred) and ended by noting that Trump has repeatedly refused to say he will accept a peaceful transfer of power. Pence refused to say whether he would go peacefully. But by the end of the debate he looked ready to take any out.
Neither candidate did a particularly good job answering direct questions, and Page didn’t make them, which was too bad.
But the questions alone were notable, because they so dramatically punctured the Trumpworld bubble where Pence spends most of his time. After months of campaign rallies in which the vice president has extolled the Trump administration’s great economic “comeback,” praised Trump’s deft handling of the pandemic — which he talks about in the past tense, declaring that the whole country is ready to reopen again — and observed a studied silence on the wildfires consuming the Western United States, Pence was forced to confront reality.
Naturally, he did his best to avoid it.
But when Page let him off the hook, Harris came right back at him. Speaking slowly and forcefully, in easy-to-understand terms, Harris laid out the evidence that the last four years of the Trump administration have been an unmitigated disaster. “They are coming for you,” she told Americans with pre-existing conditions, describing the Trump administration’s efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act. She drove home the point that Trump and Pence knew just how dangerous COVID-19 was, and chose to hide that information from the American public. Pence tried to argue that Harris was disrespecting “the American people” and their sacrifices during the pandemic with that attack. But she wasn’t having it. “You respect the American people when you tell them the truth,” she shot back.
On the coronavirus catastrophe, which the campaign had managed to ignore up until the White House itself became a hot spot, Pence tried to pivot and declare that it was Joe Biden who mishandled a pandemic — back when the United States was besieged by the swine flu.
Don’t remember the swine flu causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and a massive economic collapse?
You are not alone. Like a lot of Pence’s comments, this one was not aimed at the majority of the American people who actually lived through the last four years, and remember the eight years that came before that.
Take climate change. Pence baited Harris for supporting a Green New Deal, although neither candidate talked about what that really means. Then he declared, bizarrely, in the midst of the current season of unprecedented weather disasters, that hurricanes and wildfires are no worse than they ever were, and that “our air and land are cleaner than any time ever recorded.”
Any time ever recorded?
Pence derided Harris and Biden for embracing the Paris Climate Accord, and insisted that the jury is out on the explanation for global warming.
Harris, in contrast, forthrightly embraced the climate accord and promoted Biden’s plans for green jobs, energy efficiency, and a carbon-neutral economy by 2035.
Sadly, she also repeated Biden’s pledge not to end fracking, and stood by it even when Pence reminded her of her own opposition to fracking during her presidential primary campaign.
On abortion, the ardently pro-life Pence — who supported an Indiana law that mandated that women who miscarried be forced to hold funerals for their fetuses — declared that Harris and Biden support “tax-payer funded abortion all the way up to the moment of birth” — a rallying cry for his base, but a weird charge to the prochoice majority of Americans.
Harris said simply that a woman, not the vice president, should decide what to do with her own body.
The worst parts of the debate for Pence were when Harris quoted Donald Trump deriding U.S. troops who lost their lives as “suckers” and “losers,” and when she described Trump’s embrace of dictators, including Vladimir Putin, and his nonchalance about Russia putting bounties on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Pence looked away. He knows these things are true. And he hates that they are true.
Still, he did his best to defend the indefensible. When Harris quoted Trump from last week’s debate refusing to condemn white supremacists and appearing to incite violence at the polls, Pence scoffed and repeated a canned line, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” He blamed the media for taking Trump’s comments out of context. But millions of Americans heard those comments for themselves.
Pence doesn’t have much to work with, so he fell back on the Groucho Marx defense: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
On the Supreme Court, Pence pressed Harris on whether she would “pack the Court” and tried to scare voters with the prospect that a Democratic administration would add to the nine justices on the Court, wiping out Republican gains.
Like Biden, Harris stayed on script, refusing to say whether a Biden administration would consider expanding the number of justices on the Court (they probably won’t), which some progressives have floated as a way to reverse the conservative takeover of the judiciary.
Harris deftly turned the question around, citing the unprecedented rush of conservative confirmations on the heels of the Republican Senate’s refusal to confirm Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominees.
“You want to talk about packing a court? Let’s have that discussion,” she said, returning to the rush to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, just days before the election. She quoted Abraham Lincoln, who declined to make a Supreme Court appointment close to an election, and described sitting on the Senate Judiciary Committee and watching underqualified ideologues crammed onto the bench.
Pence was smirking and shaking his head when Harris added, “And do you know that of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the court of appeals for lifetime appointments — not one is Black?”
Pence seemed momentarily caught off guard. He obviously wasn’t expecting race to come up.
The candidates’ exchange on race, which followed, was surreal.
In answer to a question about the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, Harris said she did not believe justice was served when a grand jury failed to indict the police officers who broke in and shot her. She added that she has spoken with Taylor’s mother and family. “Her family deserves justice. … Her life was taken unjustifiably and tragically and violently,” she said.
Pence replied that he was surprised that Harris, as a prosecutor, would question the grand jury.
He attacked the very idea of implicit bias and systemic racism as deeply offensive to law enforcement. He warned about rioters and looters.
Then came the really weird part: Pence attacked Harris’ record as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general for not doing enough to end mass incarceration, and he promoted the Trump campaign as the true agent of racial justice.
Harris shot back that she was not going to be lectured by Pence — but she did not mean about race. Instead, she defended her record as a prosecutor. Apparently calculating that in the general election she is better off, as a Black woman, not emphasizing race, she left that part implicit. She did, however, tell Pence that she was proud to be the first state AG to require training on racial bias for law enforcement, and added, “ because, yes, Joe Biden and I recognize that implicit bias does exist, whether you believe it or not.”
In response to the surprise final question from Utah eighth-grader Brecklynn Brown on civility, Pence offered platitudes, saying “here in America, we can debate” and “vigorously disagree,” but once debates end, “We come together as Americans.”
Harris connected the question more directly to the campaign. Joe Biden decided to run for president, she said, after white supremacists murdered a protester in Charlottesville. “It so troubled him and upset him that there was that kind of hate and division,” she said.
The answer, she told Brown, is “ your leadership” and that of other young people, and for all Americans to get out and vote.
And with that, she strode away from the podium, beaming and waving, clearly the victor. Pence, looking pale, posed stiffly beside his wife, who, against the rules laid out beforehand, walked up to embrace him wearing no mask.