Pence-Harris debate more traditional

Candidates often ignored the questions they were asked

THE MOST BUZZED-ABOUT moment in Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate came when a fly perched on Vice President Mike Pence’s head for over two minutes, during which he was calling it an “insult” to police to claim that systemic racism against black people by law enforcement exists.

Pence’s debate with Sen. Kamala Harris took a far more traditional course than last week’s chaotic interaction between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. There was far more policy discussion this time around, with the coronavirus pandemic, trade war with China, climate change, Trump taxes, criminal justice, and abortion being mentioned.

But Pence and Harris often did not actually respond to the questions of moderator Susan Page of USA Today. At one point, Pence asked Harris if she and Biden would try to pack the Supreme Court with their own nominees if Amy Coney Barrett is approved as a justice. Harris responded by criticizing judicial appointments occurring just before an election, something she had previously done when asked what she would want California to do if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

In what the Washington Post said could have been considered a “self-critique,” Pence said “I just want the record to reflect, she never answered the question.”

Page asked Pence about how he and the president would help Americans with preexisting conditions to have access to affordable insurance if the Affordable Care Act, which includes coverage of those conditions as a key tenet, is thrown out in a court battle the administration initiated.

The vice president dodged the question, saying, “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect pre-existing conditions for every American,” but didn’t elaborate on a plan.

Page also asked the candidates about whether they had conversations with their running mates about what would happen if the president becomes disabled. Under the 25th Amendment, a president could be declared “disabled” and removed from office by the vice president acting with a majority of the cabinet.

Pence, apparently sensing the question was inspired by the recent diagnosis of Trump with COVID-19, pivoted to talk about how the administration will have a vaccine by the end of the year (something health officials say won’t be available to the public until 2021), and that Harris is undermining public confidence by criticizing the administration on vaccine creation. Harris similarly didn’t answer Page’s question, talking instead of the moment Biden asked her to join the ticket.

Harris scored points when she mentioned the 210,000 American deaths from COVID-19, and how Trump and Pence were aware of the nature and seriousness of the pandemic early on, but downplayed the significance at first.”Can you imagine if you knew on January 28th, as opposed to March 13th, what they knew, what you might’ve done to prepare?” she asked.

Page followed that up by asking Pence why the US death toll, as a percentage of the population, is higher than that of almost every other wealthy nation on Earth. Pence, the head of the administration’s coronavirus task force, focused his response on Trump’s February ban of foreign travelers from mainland China. What he didn’t add was that thousands of Chinese, Americans, and travelers from other countries still arrived to the US from China for three months following that.

That analysis of the early pandemic response came the morning before the New England Journal of Medicine said in an editorial that US leaders have failed to respond to the challenge of COVID-19. The publication urged voters not to reelect President Trump, the first time in its history that the prestigious medical journal has taken a stand in a presidential election. “They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy,” the editors said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The two candidates had two very different, pointed strategies to the debate. Pence took the road of running out the clock, a filibuster method of sorts, as Joanna Weiss called it at WBUR, while looking quite serious and poised. Undecided voters on CNN later called the approach “confident.”

It seemed that Harris anticipated Pence’s many interruptions to her answers, pausing several times to look over and say ““Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” just to have him look back over and continue. He interrupted her twice as many times as she interrupted him, the first time when she was responding to Pence’s claim that Biden will raise taxes “on day one” of his presidency.

Marketwatch reports that those moments are resonating for women online, many of whom empathize with the many moments men have interrupted or spoken over them in professional settings.