VP Debate: More dodgeball than hardball

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Moderator Susan Page spent 90 minutes quizzing Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris at Wednesday night’s debate. But while Pence and Harris spent a lot of time talking, they spent less time actually answering the questions Page asked.

Once a handful of questions passed by without Page pressing the issue, the candidates realized they had a free pass to bend each segment to their will, and it became a running theme of the lone vice presidential debate. Here are some of the biggest dodges of the Pence-Harris showdown.

Dodge #1: Covid rates

Early on, Page asked Pence to explain why “the U.S. death toll as a percentage of our population is higher than almost every other wealthy nation on Earth,” but Pence skipped past the question to focus on actions the Trump administration had taken during the pandemic.

“Our death rate is two and a half times that of Canada,” Page asked Pence. “You head the administration’s coronavirus task force. Why is the U.S. death toll as a percentage of our population higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?”

Pence talked instead about suspending travel from China, “reinventing testing” and delivering emergency supplies to medical workers, as well as getting to work on developing a vaccine. But he didn’t get into the question of why the U.S. government’s actions haven’t achieved better results compared to other countries.

Dodge #2: Geezer presidents

Whichever candidate wins will be vice president to the oldest president the United States has ever had on Inauguration Day. But when asked directly about what conversations he’s had with President Donald Trump about what happens if the president becomes incapacitated, especially given Trump’s recent coronavirus diagnosis, Pence said he wanted to go back to an earlier question.

“I think we need to move on,” Page said.

“I would like to go back,” Pence pressed on. The vice president then spent his two minutes talking about the development of a coronavirus vaccine, promising “tens of millions of doses” would be produced in “less than a year,” and casting swine flu as a massive public health crisis in 2009.

Harris wasn’t much more on-topic when Page turned to her. She talked about the Zoom call from Joe Biden inviting her onto the ticket and how proud her mother would have been been, before transitioning to her qualifications and experience — speaking to her fitness to step into the presidency, but sidestepping whether she and Biden have had specific conversations about succession.

Dodge #3: Health transparency

Page asked whether voters “have a right to know more detailed health information about presidents and candidates. Harris pivoted immediately to tax returns.

“Absolutely,” answered Harris. She threw one line at the question, saying Biden is “so incredibly transparent,” before switching to a favorite point: Trump’s taxes.

“We now know that Donald Trump paid $750 in taxes. When I first heard about it, I said, you mean $750,000? No, $750,” Harris said, before questioning who holds Trump’s debt. “Because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president’s decisions.”

Dodge #4: China

Asked to describe the United States’ “fundamental relationship with China,” Harris took the opportunity to critique the Trump administration’s handling of both the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S.-China trade relationship.

Noting that Trump scrapped an internal White House office to monitor potential pandemics, Harris said that Trump is fixated on undoing anything accomplished by the Obama administration.

“There was a team of disease experts that President Obama and Vice President Biden dispatched to China to monitor what is now predictable and what might happen,” she said. Trump and Pence “pulled them out. We now are looking at 210,000 Americans who have lost their lives.”

Trump’s handling of trade with China, Harris added, “resulted in the loss of over 300 [sic] manufacturing jobs, and a manufacturing recession — and the American consumer paying more for goods because of that failed [trade] war, as they called it.”

For his part, Pence repeatedly — and falsely — said Trump had “suspended all travel from China” at the outset of the pandemic. In fact, the restrictions enacted on Feb. 2 were porous, with exemptions for Chinese nationals in Hong Kong and Macau, 8,000 of whom entered the United States in the three months after the restrictions were enacted, according to an AP analysis of travel entry records and aviation data.

Meanwhile, nearly 30,000 Americans returned from mainland China in the first month after the crack-down went into effect. The AP found that the U.S. lost track of at least 1,600 of those people it meant to monitor for the onset of symptoms.

Dodge #5: Abortion

Page asked both candidates how they would want their home states to handle abortion, starting with Pence, but the vice president used his time to focus on the Supreme Court — turning back to abortion later, when he used the subject to dodge a question about insurance coverage for people with preexisting health conditions.

Page jumped into the subject by asking Pence whether he would want his home state of Indiana to ban all abortions if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. But Pence wanted to talk about Democrats’ insults to nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic faith.

Harris wasn’t much more straightforward. When asked how California should react to a potential overturning of Roe, she brought up Biden’s Catholic faith in response to Pence’s answer. She did nod to the issue of reproductive rights before turning more broadly to health care and preexisting conditions: “I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body.”

When Page then asked a follow-up about preexisting conditions, Pence reached back to abortion: “I’m pro-life, I don’t apologize for it.”

Neither answered the core point of Page’s question: how they would want their states to react if Roe v. Wade was overturned. And Pence never did answer Page’s question about how his administration would protect people with preexisting conditions, something Trump has been promising for four years without producing a plan to do it.

Dodge #6: Supreme Court packing

As Biden has done in recent weeks, Harris demurred on whether their potential administration would support adding members to the Supreme Court if Barrett is confirmed.

Pence asked her point-blank whether she and Biden would “pack the Supreme Court,” but Harris gave an elliptical response about Abraham Lincoln deciding not to fill an open seat in the final days before the 1864 election, in contrast to Senate Republicans’ rush to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat.

When Pence prodded again, Harris shot back, “let’s talk about packing the court,” before noting, “of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the court of appeals for lifetime appointments, not one is Black.”

“This is what they’ve been doing,” Harris added. “You want to talk about packing a court, let’s have that discussion.”

Dodge #7: Peaceful transfer of power

Page noted that Trump has left open whether he would accept the results of the election if he loses and asked the candidates what they would do to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Pence said he thought their ticket would win, and he didn’t get into what his own role in a possible transition would be if Biden wins.

For her part, Harris took the opportunity to tout the broad coalition supporting Biden and urged people to vote. She didn’t say how they would respond if Trump refused to concede.

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