October 8, 2020

The Vice Presidential Debate: The Debate That Was Actually a Debate

Andrew Terp, Ann Adler, Charlie Black, Scott Pastrick

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., answers a question as Vice President Mike Pence listens during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris took the stage before a masked, socially distanced audience and were separated by plexiglass screens barely noticeable on the home screens of American viewers. And, though the coronavirus crisis unavoidably loomed, the 2020 Vice Presidential debate stood out for its potential to significantly affect the outcome of the election because, for the first time in decades, the two candidates – their qualities, character, and competency – truly matter to the electorate. At no time in recent Presidential campaign history has a Vice Presidential debate, because of the possibility of succession before the end of the four-year term, been so potentially consequential.

For Senator Harris, the evening was about reintroducing herself to voters and demonstrating that she is a safe choice. For Vice President Pence, last night was about righting a campaign-ship that many believe is beginning to take on water.

Vice President Pence played the role he needed to play – the staunch and unapologetic defender of President Trump – while attempting to mount a vigorous case against the Biden-Harris team, arguing that the pair are too liberal for the majority of Americans. The Vice President displayed his characteristic poise and steely demeanor and remained calm and deliberate in his responses. He was most effective when turning questions onto Senator Harris; for example, during the tax segment when he asked Harris to deny that a Biden presidency would result in the repeal of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which delivered tax savings for many Americans.

Senator Harris sought to demonstrate that she and Joe Biden – or simply “Joe” as she repeatedly and familiarly referred to her running mate – have a solid partnership that will bring change and will reinstitute dignity and stability to the Presidency. The Senator was measured and deliberate in her delivery. Her strongest moments were founded on her tough focus and studied analysis of the Trump administration’s record, repeatedly labeling its policies as failures and drawing a clear distinction between change and division.

The longstanding rule among political strategists preparing Vice Presidential candidates for debate is “do no harm” and Senator Harris toed that line. She made her case clearly and thoughtfully. Her demeanor was powerful and direct without appearing to be meanspirited to the Vice President.

Perhaps Senator Harris’ most memorable moment came when she admonished the viewing audience that “they are coming to get you,” referring to the Trump administration’s effort to undo the Affordable Care Act while lacking a clear plan of their own to ensure health care for millions, including individuals with pre-existing conditions. In that one short, sharp line, Senator Harris drew a clear and stark distinction between the two tickets that voters could comprehend and measure.

Vice President Pence’s most successful moment may have come when he honed in on the possibility that a Biden White House would support increasing the number of Justices on the Supreme Court – termed “court-packing.” Harris, like Biden in the first debate, evaded the question several times. The lack of an answer to that inevitable question is certain to hang over the Biden-Harris ticket and help to animate President Trump’s base. Expect to hear more about that issue throughout the coming weeks as Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination progresses through the Senate and Democrats cry hypocrisy, comparing swift action on Barrett to the refusal of the Senate to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016.

Both candidates delivered attacks and scored points that connected with the voters, but neither truly bested the other nor emerged as the clear winner.

Above all else, what may define the 2020 Vice Presidential debate is how relatively conventional it was in the midst of very unconventional election.