Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris descended upon Salt Lake City, Utah, Wednesday for the lone debate between the two people vying to be the nation’s No. 2. The debate about the debate has been particularly fraught in recent days, after at least 27 people nearly three dozen people (including Donald Trump)—in the White House, the military, the press, and the upper echelon of the anti-mask, pro-reopening Republican Party— have tested positive for the highly contagious and dangerous novel coronavirus. Pence’s handlers reported at least two negative COVID-19 tests, and insist he doesn’t owe it to anyone to quarantine, despite attending the Hug and Smooch Rose Garden Superspreader event on Sept. 26. So adamant was Team Pence that there was no cause for concern or cancellation, they actually managed to turn the presence of a Plexiglass barrier into a debate death hill for most of Tuesday, before ultimately agreeing to requests that both nominees and moderator Susan Page sit behind them. The barriers were the most visible tweak to the debate stage, in addition to an increased distance of 12 feet, 3 inches between the nominees’ desks.
Despite the Plexiglass and Trump’s COVID-19 case dominating most recent discussions of the veep debate, an interesting event awaited the limited in-person audience—who the Commission of Presidential Debates (CPD) swore, for realsies this time, would all be wearing masks. It’s not a stretch to expect both Pence and Harris to run for the top spot in 2024, and both are seasoned politicians with plenty of experience on both debate stages and in courtrooms. Pence’s biggest job? Defending the indefensible, infected man who wishes he could sign Pence’s paychecks with a Sharpie; defending Trump’s failures, his controversies, and his classlessness, while attempting to simultaneously convince American voters that Pence is the grown-up in the room, but also that no such grown-up is necessary. Harris, on the other hand, needed to shred Trump (let us count the ways) and do no harm to her running mate—particularly as the Biden-Harris ticket continues to skyrocket in the polls. She’ll likely face some low blows from Pence and the peanut gallery, due to her gender, her race, and Pence’s deeply ingrained, wooden, and purportedly faith-based misogyny. Let’s do this.
The debate was 90 minutes long, with not one break, just as the CPD warned us last month.
The debate will be divided into nine segments of approximately 10 minutes each. The moderator will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.
Unlike Chris Wallace, who moderated the “shitshow” known as the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, USA Today’s Page did not release her list of topics in advance. Like Wallace, Page will not be fact-checking the nominees in real-time.
Harris has been preparing with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg standing in for fellow Indiana Hoosier Pence, while Pence recruited impeachment attorney Pam Bondi to play Harris in his own debate prep, which makes no damn sense. However, all signs indicate that Mayor Pete and Momala weren’t playing around during their mock debates.
And just a few minutes after 9 PM ET, we were off. Page kicked things off by showing off the small but socially distant crowd, the Plexiglass, and insisting people would have to keep their masks on. The nominees came out to cheers and promptly took a seat. Pence had a noticeably red eye.
Page sent thoughts and prayers to Trump and Melania, then vowed to enforce the rules that the campaigns and commissions had agreed to, and demanded a civil event.
COVID-19 IS NOT UNDER CONTROL
Page asked Harris how January and February 2021 under Biden-Harris would look different than under Trump-Pence. After reciting the grave statistics that face us now, Harris turned back to what the White House knew in January. She promised that the difference would be that Joe Biden has a plan, while the Trump administration did not. As her time ran out, Harris insisted that Trump-Pence had “forfeited” the right to be reelected.
Pence was up next, and Page pointed out that the U.S. death toll (as a percentage of population) was higher than that of any other wealthy country, and asked him, quite simply, why. After a string of platitudes to the University of Utah, Page, and Harris, Pence said Trump was working hard from day one, and leaned into the “China travel ban” that wasn’t actually a ban, predictably bringing up Biden’s critique of that move as xenophobic. After admitting that he’s the head of the coronavirus task force, Pence boasted of testing rates and protective equipment delivery, as well as vaccine development, before he accused Biden of plagiarizing Trump’s plan.
Harris fired back that the administration’s efforts hadn’t worked, before laying failures at Pence’s feet as the head of the task force. She brought up Trump’s infamous interviews with Bob Woodward, noting that the president kept his knowledge of both the deadliness of COVID-19 and the virus’ fast transmission quiet—so that Americans would stay calm. The crosstalk began immediately, and Harris won 15 seconds to look into the camera and ask Americans how calm they were as they navigated pandemic realities like not seeing their family, kids being stuck home from school, or not being able to find toilet paper.
Pence looked into the camera and claimed he cared about people before he said Harris’ characterization of the administration’s handling of the virus thus far was an insult to Americans. He then claimed that Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx told them months ago that if they did “everything right,” they might still lose over 200,000 people. Pence then made a huge deal of standing up for the American people in the face of Harris’ assessment of his own failures, continuing to attempt to frame her delivery of facts about his and Trump’s failures as attacks against Americans.
Page then asked Pence about his attendance at the maskless Rose Garden super spreader event on Sept. 26, and asked how the White House expected Americans to follow the rules while their leadership did not. Pence launched into a speech about how much he and Trump trust “the American people” (cue new debate drinking game) and mocked Biden and Harris for not trusting or respecting them.
Harris pointed out that “respecting the American people” requires telling them the truth when allowing them to make their own decisions. Pence attempted to interrupt but was denied soundly by Page. After a somewhat friendly exchange where Page apologized for calling Sen. Harris “Kamala,” Page asked if Harris would take a vaccine. She vowed to be first in line … if the scientists said it was safe, but not if Trump claimed it was.
THESE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES ARE REALLY OLD
Pence was up first, but he railroaded Page and turned back to the vaccine, insisting that Harris was attempting to undermine confidence in it. He then circled back to Harris’ use of the word “failure,” and brought up H1N1, aka the Swine Flu, and spewed random numbers of people who did not die of it. His time was up, and he had not answered the actual question posed to him. This is how Pence debates.
The split screen suddenly became the great equalizer of the debate.
Throughout the night, Harris silently voiced her thoughts on Pence’s evasive nonsense and lies.
Harris was given the full time to address Page’s actual question: Have you discussed with Biden what happens in the face of presidential disability, and should you? Harris focused on the history she’s made and the day Biden called her to ask her to be his running mate.
TRANSPARENCY IS EVERYTHING
Pence was up first, and was asked if voters deserved access to detailed information about Trump’s health. He rambled about how much sympathy and kindness Trump received while hospitalized and congratulated Harris on her nomination, but didn’t answer the question.
Harris was next, and focused on the importance of transparency, zooming in on Trump’s appalling tax returns and massive amount of debt, so that Americans know whether his self-interest is fueling his decisions. She reiterated the need for transparency and Biden’s commitment to it.
Pence jumped in with a “47 years in Washington” dig at Biden before praising Trump for being a businessman and job creator, who turned the economy around. Page attempted to silence him but he just. kept. talking.
THE ECONOMY IS HURTING
Page thanked Pence for the segue into the next topic, and dropped startling—and recent—statistics and bad news from the job market. She asked if the Biden-Harris jobs plan and tax increases would stifle the economic recovery. Harris pointed out that Trump evaluates the economy’s health by checking in on how rich people are doing. She touched on their plan’s innovation, infrastructure, clean energy, and education opportunities, all while contrasting them against Trump’s first-term failures.
Pence was asked if Americans should brace for a recovery that takes two years or more. Pence chided Barack Obama and Biden for taking too long to fix things after the Great Recession. He then claimed most voters got $2,000 back from Trump’s 2017 tax scam, before insisting that Biden-Harris want to raise taxes, ban fossil fuels, ban fracking, and force the Green New Deal onto Americans. Again, he refused to stop talking when his time is up.
Harris insisted that this debate was supposed to be about truth and facts, and began to explain that Biden has vowed not to raise taxes for anyone making less than $400,000 a year or ban fracking. Pence interrupted her and Page did nothing. Harris refused to engage in crosstalk until Pence gave in.
She then reminded the room about Biden’s work with the Affordable Care Act, and Trump’s determination to crush it. Page attempted to cut her off, but Harris reminded her that Pence had interrupted her moments ago, and reclaimed her time.
She looked into the camera and warned people with preexisting conditions: “They’re coming for you.”
Pence tossed a canned line about opinions and facts … and Harris told him it was a good line. He then rambled on and didn’t answer his question, repeating that Biden was going to ban fracking.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL
Pence was asked, as Hurricane Delta looms and wildfires ravaged the west coast, what the Trump-Pence administration planned to do about it. Pence dove deep into his delusions, rambling about forest management, more fracking, and deregulation.
Harris repeated that Biden would not ban fracking, or raise taxes on anyone making less rhan $400,000, before listing the environmental crises Biden has seen and is determined to fight. She also brought up the Trump-Pence administration’s war on science, and reminded us of Trump’s pesky habit of claiming the he knows more than scientists.
Pence was then asked if he believes climate change poses an existential threat. Pence spent five seconds saying that the climate was changing before he veered right back to Biden’s vow to repeal the Trump-GOP Tax Scam, and repeated that Biden was going to ban fracking … again … and kill jobs. He then insisted that Biden-Harris are going to force the Green New Deal onto Americans.
Harris zoomed in on Pence’s mention of jobs, bringing up the failed trade war with China, our struggling manufacturing sector, and struggling farmers. She brought up her stepdaughter in the context of high school and college graduates worrying about what jobs await them, thanks to the Trump administration.
Pence used his time to ramble on about how many jobs Trump has created, insisting Biden and Obama ruined the economy. Harris pointed out that Biden saved the automotive industry, and Pence voted against it.
CHINA: FRIEND OR FOE?
Page brought up Trump’s continued war with China, and asked Pence where he thought we stood with China. He spent the bulk of his time attempting to frame Harris as a far-left demon before backing up Trump’s blame of China for the coronavirus, and bringing up the Chinese travel ban that wasn’t a ban, and Biden’s opposition of it. He then refused to stop talking, and Page did nothing.
Harris was given the same question. She pointed out the aftereffects of Trump’s war with China, and brought up his obsession with erasing all things Obama, including an agency devoted to pandemic preparation. She then brought up the COVID-19 death toll before bringing up the ripple effect of Trump’s tariff-driven trade war. She also pointed out that Trump has decimated the United States’ standing in the world.
Page then asked Harris what she thought America’s place should be in the world moving forward. She leaned on Biden’s relationship-focused approach to governing, noting that it’s important to keep your word to your friends and keep your adversaries in check. She then pointed out that Trump did the opposite, bringing up Russian intelligence attacks, NATO, and the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Pence claimed that Trump “kept his word” by moving an embassy to Jerusalem before shifting to ISIS, claiming that Trump “unleashed” the military and destroyed the Caliphate. He then told the story of humanitarian Kayla Mueller, who’d been held hostage during the Obama administration, insisting that servicemembers had told him that she’d be alive if Trump had been president.
While Page tried to call Pence for time, he continued to talk, and talk, and talk, bringing up the strike that killed Qassem Soleimani in January of this year.
Page then gave Harris a chance to respond, warning her to not talk as much as Pence did so they could move on. Harris demanded equal time, then expressed condolences to the Mueller family, who was in the audience, before noting the injuries sustained by U.S. soldiers in the wake of the Soleimani assassination. She then brought up Trump’s disrespect of soldiers writ large, and John McCain specifically, as well as the bounties on U.S. soldiers that Trump’s ignored.
Pence rolled right over Page when she attempted to stop him from talking. She pointed out that he’d had more time than Harris but he just kept talking. As he spoke about Trump’s love for the soldiers, Page played the “your campaign agreed to the rules” card, and he finally shushed himself.
WHAT IF AMY CONEY BARRETT HELPS OVERTURN ROE v. WADE?
Pence was asked what would happen in his home state of Indiana if a newly-conservative Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Pence went right back to the previous topic, and said Biden didn’t want Obama to kill Osama bin Laden, before saying that he hoped Coney Barrett wouldn’t be attacked for being Christian during her confirmation process, and stated that he hoped she’d be confirmed, without ever answering the question at hand.
Harris was asked what she’d like to happen in her home state of California if Roe is overturned. She noted that she and Biden are religious people. She voiced opposition to confirmation hearings, citing public opinion. She briefly answered the question—the choice belongs to the pregnant person, not Trump—before circling back to Trump’s war on the Affordable Care Act and preexisting conditions. She then offered some tidbits from Biden’s health care plan.
WHAT HAPPENS TO MY PREEXISTING CONDITION?
Pence was up first and dodged the question, instead lying about late-term abortions, and Biden-Harris’ support for them, before deciding he was the new moderator.
He directly asked Harris if Biden was going to pack the Supreme Court if Coney Barrett is confirmed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement.
Harris instead thanked him for bringing up the history of the Supreme Court, and launched into a quick lesson herself, noting that Abraham Lincoln declined to appoint a Supreme Court Justice in an election year. Pence repeated the packing question, and—without letting Harris speak—insisted that they plan to do just that.
He then looked into the camera and told viewers that if they respect the Supreme Court, and want a nine-justice Supreme Court, they would vote for Trump.
Harris then pointed out that Trump had packed the court with judges during his first term, making lifetime appointments, and not one of them was Black.
THE TRAGEDY OF BREONNA TAYLOR
Page offered the broad strokes of the Taylor case before asking Harris if she believed justice had been served. Harris said it had not. She touched on her conversation with Taylor’s mother before bringing up the murder of George Floyd that Americans watched in May and June. She brought up the protests, noting that she didn’t condone violence, but supported fighting to achieve our ideals. Noting that “bad cops are bad for good cops,” Harris vowed that a Biden win would bring the end of cash bail and private prisons, the decriminalization of cannabis, and a ban on choke and carotid holds.
Pence kicked off his time by saying he was sad she died but he trusts the justice system. He then accused Harris of being dismissive of the Taylor grand jury and said he hoped justice would be served for Floyd’s murderers.
He skipped right past marches and protests to riots and destruction with a big fly stuck in his white hair. It was there for two minutes.
Pence claimed that acknowledging systemic racism was an insult to law enforcement. He then muttered a few talking points about Trump being great for Black Americans.
Harris responded by pointing out that she was the only prosecutor on the stage. She then rattled off Trump’s long—so long—history of cultivating racism, bigotry, and hate in this country. From the Muslim ban to Charlottesville, to his “stand back and stand by” nod to the Proud Boys at the first debate.
Pence kicked off his time by raging against the media and holding up Trump’s Jewish grandchildren as proof he’s no bigot. His time was up, but Page let him kick off a rambling attack on Harris’ record as a prosecutor. He kept talking and talking as Page tried to stop him, slipping in more “Trump loves Black people” talking points, including school choice.
Page attempted to move onto the next point but Harris fought for equal time AGAIN.
Harris spoke to the reforms she implemented in San Francisco, including officer-worn body cameras. Page attempted to cut her off, but Harris wasn’t playing nice.
BUT WHAT IF TRUMP LOSES?
Page posed the last question of the night: What if you win, and Trump won’t leave? Harris painted a picture of a broad coalition of support, before telling everyone to vote. She told viewers we have the power to shape the future of our country and protect our democracy by voting.
She then brought up Trump’s effort to suppress the vote, specifically at the first debate last week.
Page then asked what Pence would do if Trump refused to concede power after losing the election. Pence instead insisted that his ticket was going to win, and touted the Trump administration’s “movement” and some vague accomplishments, including appointing conservative judges and supporting law enforcement. He then told Harris that her party was trying to overturn the 2016 election, and somehow, SOMEHOW, managed to sneak in a thinly-cloaked “BUT HER EMAILS.” He then railed against voting by mail.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
The final question came from Brecklynn, a Utahn in eighth grade. She noted the constant fighting she sees on television. among politicians and among citizens, and asked what each nominee thought their good example might do to effect change and foster unity.
Pence was first, and insisted that she shouldn’t trust her local news before touting that RBG and Antonin Scalia were good friends, implying that people can agree to disagree.
Harris brought up Biden’s decision to run: the hatred in Charlottesville, and exactly what the eighth-grader described. She noted that Biden has a long history of working across the aisle and uniting people. She then promised Brecklynn that it would get better, and encouraged her leadership. And then, thankfully, with one more round of thoughts and prayers for Trump and his COVID-19 cluster, this horrible debate was over.
The low-hanging fruit of this night? The damn fly.
It’s fun, I get it. And I’m always here for Obama clips.
But the reality is that Mike Pence just did a polite version of what Trump did last week. He railroaded and ignored the rules, and used the exact same right-wing lies and talking points to avoid the topics at hand. He just does it without raising his voice.
The reality is that Susan Page did a terrible job moderating this debate. She deferred to the white guy every time, at the expense of a woman of color.
Kamala Harris fought a battle on that debate stage that will be familiar to many women, particularly Black women. In the end, CNN’s official timers insist that she only clocked a few seconds less time to speak than Pence, but she had to fight for it, again and again, as Page and Pence had no intention of letting her be heard.
This debate? It was as much of a shitshow as last week’s was, just in a different outfit.