Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris experienced a rare moment in the 2020 campaign spotlight Wednesday night as they participated in what could be one of the most consequential vice presidential debates in history.
While more civil than last week’s presidential debate, there were still plenty of interruptions and personal attacks. Moderator Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, frequently admonished the candidates, primarily Pence, for violating rules and going beyond the allotted time.
Due to Coronavirus concerns, the candidates were about 12 feet apart on the stage at the University of Utah, and they were separated by two Plexiglas barriers. Pence had objected to a shield on his side, questioning the medical necessity of it, but the campaign ultimately relented.
Page opened the debate by pointing out rising Coronavirus infections in many states and questioning Harris on how she and former Vice President Joe Biden would handle it differently than President Donald Trump has.
Harris called the Trump administration’s response “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” She accused the president of hiding information about the seriousness of the pandemic from the public and failing to act early enough to prevent its spread.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said.
Pence, the head of the White House Coronavirus task force, defended the president’s leadership and insisted “from the very first day” President Trump has put Americans’ health first. He highlighted the suspension of travel from China in January, claiming it bought time and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
“When you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what we’ve been doing every step of the way,” Pence said, accusing Biden of “plagiarism.”
After Harris claimed the Trump administration’s approach has not worked, Pence called the criticism “a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people made.” However, Page pressed Pence on the White House’s failure to follow the social distancing guidelines recommended for the public.
“President Trump trusts the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health,” he said.
“The American people have sacrificed too much because of the incompetence of this administration,” Harris responded.
President Trump’s Coronavirus infection, as well as nearly three dozen others connected to the White House who reportedly contracted the virus, has added urgency to the discussion of containing the pandemic. Since his release from Walter Reed Hospital, Trump has downplayed the risks, urging the public not to fear the virus or let it dominate their lives.
With Biden nearing his 78th birthday and 74-year-old Trump undergoing treatment for a deadly virus, viewers may be particularly cognizant of the possibility that the vice president could need to assume the presidency in the next four years.
Pence deflected a question about stepping in for Trump, instead attacking Harris for questioning Trump’s veracity on a Coronavirus vaccine. Harris detailed her record as a district attorney and attorney general in California and her role in the U.S. Senate.
“I think Joe has asked me to serve with him because he knows we share a purpose, which is about lifting up the American people,” she said.