Where Harris and Pence won and lost in the vice presidential debate

October 8, 2020, 4:37 AM UTC

On Wednesday night, Sen. Kamala Harris became only the third woman to ever take part in a vice presidential debate—squaring off against Vice President Mike Pence in an altogether calmer, more constructive spectacle than last week’s contentious presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. 

It was a chance for the California senator and former prosecutor to make a case, before a national television audience, about why the American people should vote for change after four years of the Trump administration. And while Pence was unwavering in his defense of the administration’s policies and track record (so unwavering, in fact, that a fly temporarily made itself home on the vice president’s head during the debate), it was Harris’s offensive on a range of issues—from the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, to climate change and criminal justice reform—that set the night’s tone.

Here’s what landed, and what didn’t, for both candidates in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night.

Harris hits hard—and early—on Trump’s handling of COVID-19

Harris pulled no punches from the get-go when asked about the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said in reply to moderator Susan Page’s first question.

Harris evoked revelations from journalist Bob Woodward’s recent book on the Trump administration, which reports that the President knowingly downplayed the dangers of a virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans to date. “They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you,” she said, adding that the administration “still [doesn’t] have a plan” for dealing with the pandemic. “Well, Joe Biden does.”

Pence was immediately put on the defensive and was left to insist that “from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of Americans first.” The vice president lauded the administration’s efforts to limit travelers from China in the early days of the pandemic and talked up the prospects of a vaccine arriving in short order. But Harris landed early, and effectively, by targeting undoubtedly the administration’s biggest weakness—one that, according to polls, may well cost Trump the election. 

Pence strikes back on taxes and environmental regulations—but Harris talks up Biden’s economic policies

After taking a swipe at the President for his recently reported $750 federal income tax bill, Harris took aim at Trump for his 2017 tax act and accompanying economic policies, drawing sharp contrasts with Biden’s economic proposals. Trump’s policies, she said, have only benefited “the top 1%” and exacerbated a budget deficit “that the American people will have to pay for,” while Biden would repeal the Trump tax cuts, pursue public investments in infrastructure, and seek to make college more affordable for American families struggling to pay for higher education.

But Pence saw a window to strike back at the Biden-Harris ticket, claiming they want to “raise taxes” and “bury our economy” under the strain of investments like the Green New Deal, which would “abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking”—touchy subjects in places like Pennsylvania, a swing state with a robust fracking industry. That put Harris on the defensive, with the senator forced to clarify that “Joe Biden will not ban fracking” (to the chagrin of some progressive allies) and maintain that Biden will limit tax increases only to those making more than $400,000 per year.

Pence also took aim at Biden and Harris on the subject of trade, hitting Biden for a previously accommodative stance toward China—one that the former vice president has since walked back to more closely align with Trump’s harder line. Pence also criticized Harris for voting against the USMCA trade deal between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, saying she had put a “radical agenda ahead of American workers and American jobs.”

Harris countered by slamming Trump for his “weird obsession” with erasing President Obama’s accomplishments—one that she said has harmed the American economy, as well as the nation’s foreign policy and its credibility around the world. But the exchanges saw Pence target one of the few areas where Trump, and Republicans at large, manage to consistently poll ahead of Democrats.

Harris provides “history lesson” on SCOTUS and refuses to be “lectured” on criminal justice

Later in the evening, as the topic of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court came up, Pence noted that numerous Presidents have previously made Supreme Court nominations during an election year—despite the fact that Senate Republicans managed to block President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016.

Harris was clearly prepared and sprang on the opportunity to provide a “history lesson”—noting with relish that President Abraham Lincoln, a favorite of President Trump and other Republicans, had refused to do just that in 1864, opting instead to wait until after the upcoming election. It was a clever example to note, and Harris went on to slam the Trump administration for making dozens of “purely ideological” nominations of “substandard” federal judges—not one of whom, she asserted, is Black.

That led to an exchange on criminal justice reform, a heated social and political topic in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement earlier this year. Harris leaned on her experience in the criminal justice system to call for extensive reform and pointed to Biden campaign proposals to ban police chokeholds, build a national registry of police misconduct, end cash bail, and decriminalize marijuana. 

Pence jumped on the chance to expound on the President’s “law and order” stance, describing the notion that “America is systemically racist” and that law enforcement has “an implicit bias” against minorities as “a great insult.” He also criticized Harris for her own role as a criminal prosecutor and claimed that she “didn’t lift a finger” to change things once on Capitol Hill as a senator. 

But Harris struck back with equal conviction, insisting to Pence that she would “not be lectured” on prosecuting the law and insisting that “implicit bias does exist” in the criminal justice system. She also criticized the President’s record on race relations, from his comments about immigrants to his equivocating of white supremacists with anti-racist protesters.

It was an exchange that likely wouldn’t have done much to change peoples’ minds on the subjects of racial justice and criminal justice reform, but it showed Harris fighting her corner effectively—even as she’s faced criticisms from some on the left for her record as a prosecutor.

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