SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Trading barbs through plexiglass shields, Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris turned the only vice presidential debate of 2020 into a dissection of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Harris labeling it “the greatest failure of any presidential administration.’’
Pence, who leads the president’s coronavirus task force, acknowledged that “our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year,’’ yet vigorously defended the administration’s overall response to a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.
Fellow Indian American elected officials weighed in on Harris’ performance during the debate.
“By any measure, Senator Harris did a phenomenal job,” said state Sen. Manka Dhingra. “She conveyed her intellect, poise, and charm in response to behavior that women all over the world have to fight against—being interrupted, being condescended to, and having her experience and expertise questioned. I definitely saw my own ‘mom look’ on her face.”
Republicans desperately want to cast the race as a choice between two candidates fighting to move the country in vastly different directions. Biden and Harris, they say, would pursue a far-left agenda bordering on socialism; the Democrats say Trump’s administration will stoke racial and other divides, torpedo health care for people who aren’t wealthy, and otherwise undercut national strength.
Harris, 55, made history by becoming the first Black and South Asian woman to stand on a vice presidential debate stage.
State Rep. Vandana Slatter said, “It cannot be underestimated how important and impactful it is to our AAPI community to have someone who represents us on such a major stage.”
Harris condemned the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota and spoke about the protests against racial injustice in policing that followed, which Trump has portrayed as “riots’’ as he calls for law and order.
“We are never going to condone violence but we must always fight for the values that we hold dear,’’ Harris said. “I’m a former career prosecutor. I know what I’m talking about. Bad cops are bad for good cops.’’
Pence, 61, said his heart breaks for Taylor’s family but he trusts the U.S. justice system. He called it “remarkable’’ that Harris, as a former attorney general and prosecutor, would question the grand jury’s decision in the case not to charge an officer with killing her.
He also pushed back against the existence of systemic racism in police departments and rejected the idea that law enforcement officers have a bias against minorities.
“I want everyone to know who puts on the uniform of law enforcement every day, President Trump and I stand with you,’’ Pence said. “We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement, proving public safety, and supporting our African American neighbors.’’
The candidates also clashed on taxes—or specifically, Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns four years after repeatedly promising to do so. The New York Times reported last month that the president pays very little personal income tax but has hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
“It’d be really good to know who the president owes money to,’’ Harris said.
“The one thing we know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He is honest, he is forthright,’’ she added. “Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been about covering up everything.’’
Pence defended Trump as a job creator who has paid more than his fair share of taxes and shifted toward Biden: “On Day One, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes.’’
Both candidates sidestepped difficult questions at times.
Pence refused to say whether climate change was an existential threat or whether Trump would accept the election results should he lose, while Harris declined to say whether Biden would push to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
But so long as the coronavirus is ravaging the White House and killing several hundred Americans each day, the campaign will almost certainly be a referendum on the Trump administration’s inability to control the pandemic, which Republicans have sought to downplay or ignore altogether for several months.
Slatter said Harris “provided a positive, inspiring vision for a Joe Biden administration and made clear how Donald Trump and Mike Pence have let the American people down—from their failure to follow the science on COVID-19 and climate change, to their insistence on attacking affordable healthcare.”
Pence’s effort to focus on other topics was undercut by the mere fact that the candidates and moderator were separated by plexiglass shields, seated more than 12 feet apart, and facing a crowd of masked audience members who faced expulsion if they removed their face coverings. The candidates on stage revealed test results earlier in the day proving they were not infected.
While the audience was forced to wear face masks throughout, second lady Karen Pence removed her mask as she joined her husband on stage at the end of the debate.