vision 2020

Pence Failed at His One Debate Job: Shifting the Focus From COVID-19

It was a better debate than the presidential tilt, which isn’t saying much. Photo: Photo by JUSTIN SULLIVAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

After last week’s disastrous Trump-Biden showdown, watching Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate was a bit disorienting, as Kamala Harris and Mike Pence both spoke in complete sentences and now and then respected the rules of the encounter. Yes, Harris and Pence were mostly delivering predictable partisan talking points, but they delivered them reasonably well. There were no big gaffes and no knockout blows.

However, when you consider the context going into the event, Wednesday’s relatively sedate debate looks like another huge stumble for the Trump campaign. With less than four weeks before Election Day, Joe Biden is holding a steady polling lead that now seems to be growing, and Donald Trump’s COVID-19 infection is dominating the news. Mike Pence had one job, which he failed to accomplish: Change the subject!

Unsurprisingly, moderator Susan Page began the debate with questions about the administration’s record in fighting COVID-19, and Pence didn’t have much to offer other than Trump’s decision to ban travel from China. Harris scored some easy points right off the bat, as Politico reported:

Kamala Harris sharply denounced the White House coronavirus response at the start of Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, repeatedly accusing the Trump administration of covering up the truth about the disease and ineptly addressing the pandemic.

“They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you,” Harris said, adding later, “They knew, and they covered it up.”

And in her biggest sure-to-be-on-TV lines of the entire debate, Harris framed the election as a referendum on the administration’s COVID-19 record:

Ms. Harris characterized President Trump’s response to coronavirus as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country” and said Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence have “forfeited their right to re-election” because of how they have handled the pandemic.

After that predictable battering, Pence made one significant unforced error by bringing up COVID-19 again when China policy was discussed. And he completely dodged any answer to related questions about health-care policy, including the fraught issue of protections for people with preexisting conditions, which Trump keeps asserting he will somehow extend even as his administration battles in court to kill the safeguards currently provided by Obamacare.

So in an election when health-care policy is an old reliable Democratic advantage and Trump’s record on COVID-19 looms so very large, this debate reinforced the current trajectory of the campaign, which is not good for Donald Trump and Mike Pence. I am sure conservative media will make much hay over Harris’s evasion of the question about potential Democratic court-packing. But court-packing isn’t killing hundreds of thousands of people and doesn’t seem terribly relevant when a plague-stricken White House is obsessed with cramming a third Trump Supreme Court justice through a rushed confirmation process.

Both candidates dodged questions and missed opportunities, and more perceptive observers than I am can perhaps judge them on style points. It was clear that Pence, who tonight more than ever seemed like the whitest white man in America, clearly ran a big risk by steadily interrupting the two women with whom he shared the stage.

But in the end, this debate was not a game-changer. And at this stage of the contest, that means Kamala Harris won.

Pence Failed at One Debate Job: Shifting Focus From COVID