US VP debate: From 'tense but civil' to 'blast from past', how US media reacted to Harris-Pence showdown

The debate, coming less than four weeks ahead of November's presidential election, saw the duo spar over US president Donald Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, jobs, China, racial tensions and climate change

FP Staff October 08, 2020 20:19:48 IST
US VP debate: From 'tense but civil' to 'blast from past', how US media reacted to Harris-Pence showdown

File image of Kamala Harris. Reuters

With the vice-presidential debate between Democratic nominee Kamala Harris and Vice-President Mike Pence in the books, the press' reaction was near-unanimous: Civil, but pointed.

The debate, coming less than four weeks ahead of November's presidential election, saw the duo spar over US president Donald Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, jobs, China, racial tensions and climate change.

The pieces almost uniformly noted how the exchanges between the contenders, while largely remaining civil— especially when compared to last week's joust between Trump and Joe Biden, which was widely derided as 'the worst in living memory' — saw a number of sharp exchanges with Harris showing off her prosecutorial roots and Pence struggling to defend the indefensible.

Harris described Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as the "greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history" of America as she opened the vice debate with a sharp attack on Pence, who leads the president's coronavirus task force.

In the Washington Post, Dan Balz, in a column entitled 'In VP debate, Trump is again the issue as Pence tries to change the focus', wrote: "Vice-President Pence had a difficult hand to play in Wednesday’s debate with Sen. Kamala Harris and he did what he could with the case he wanted to make. But the more he tried, the clearer it became just how much President Trump continues to undermine his own campaign."

Balz, writing that Pence parroted Trump's arguments, which run counter to the evidence and which have been rejected by a majority of the populace, noted that the vice-president "could not or would not" answer the moderator's query on why the United States has a higher death rate than almost any other major country.

"As important as this debate was — perhaps the most important of any vice-presidential debate in the past three decades, it probably was not a game-changer. Both Harris and Pence probably left thinking they had succeeded in their main missions, and partisans likely cheered the performance of their respective candidate," Balz concluded.

Lisa Lerer, in The New York Times, wrote about how the debate was a blast from the past. "... what might have been the most striking part of the evening was just how, well, ordinary it all seemed."

Lerer wrote that the two candidates largely avoided answering the most interesting questions, though she added the caveat that this is standard practice. She also noted that both Harris and Biden refused to answer whether or not they'd discussed safeguards or procedures about “the issue of presidential disability”.

"Vice-presidential debates rarely shift the dynamics of a race. It’s hard to see how this one will stray from the norm, particularly given how strongly held opinions are of Trump and Biden. Of course, there’s a third party competing for our attention in this election: the virus. On that score, Ms. Harris did better in last night’s debate, opening the evening with a devastating line," Lerer wrote.

She observed that Pence's words sounded much like standard political fare of a previous era, but that after four years of the Trump administration, everyone knows it is only a matter of time until a presidential tweetstorm blows everything up again: "The talk of togetherness will seem distant and irrelevant. Kind of like the swine flu," she concluded.

Jazmine Ulloa and Liz Goodwin in The Boston Globe, penned a piece saying Harris tied Pence to a “disaster” of an economy, a “failure” of a coronavirus response, and a “weird obsession” with undoing the achievements of the Obama administration in debate that was tense but civil and which  avoided the chaos of last week’s presidential debate.

"Ticking off the numbers of lives taken, the jobs lost, the schools closed, and the “sacrificial workers” on the front lines, Harris skewered the Trump administration for its response to the outbreak, calling it “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," they wrote.

Pence, meanwhile, expressing condolences for the 2,10,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus , accused Biden of plagiarising the plan Pence, the head of the coronavirus task force, is advocating, the column noted.

But Harris continued to attack the Trump administration’s COVID response with the persistence of the fly that repeatedly landed on Pence’s head during the course of the night, the piece further stated.

"Vice-presidential debates are often confrontational affairs that draw far fewer viewers than those between the major party presidential nominees. But Trump’s frequent interruptions during his first debate with Biden and the president’s subsequent hospitalisation for the virus put more pressure on Pence and Harris to explain their parties' platforms, reassure audiences that they could step in as commander in chief if necessary, and attack each other without repeating the hostility," the column noted.

Janet Hook, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, said Harris fell back on her prosecutorial skills to attack President Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis and the economy with a clarity that eluded Biden in last week's chaotic outing.

"The debate — far tamer and more coherent than the Trump-Biden slugfest — may not make much difference in the outcome of this fall’s election, but it could count as Harris’ first audition for the next one," Hook, already looking ahead to 2024, stated.

Hook, in a similar vein, observed how Pence is in a similar position as Harris. Though he should ostensibly be Trump's political heir, other ambitious Republicans, including those from the president's family, are eyeing the White House, Hook wrote.

"The event showcased Harris’ strengths and weaknesses as a debater, which had become clear in her unsuccessful presidential campaign. She is skilled at delivering scripted attack lines with punch and flair — as she did in her show-stopping questioning of Trump nominees in the Judiciary Committee and her attack on Biden’s civil rights record in the first primary debate. She was less skillful in parrying attacks," Hook said.

Pence, Hook stated, showed none of Trump's bluster and bravado which was on display during the debate and indeed through his presidency. Which may have resulted in a better debate, but which also raised questions about Pence's ability to hold the Republican party, now the party of Trump, together.

And with Trump now heavily lagging Biden in the polls and refusing to debate Biden virtually, that future may be far closer than he thinks.

With inputs from agencies

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