The V.P. Debate

By David Leonhardt

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ImageSenator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence debated in Salt Lake City last night.
Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence debated in Salt Lake City last night.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Mike Pence and Kamala Harris are both skilled debaters. And their debate last night was far easier to watch than last week’s presidential debate.

But there was also a problem with the vice-presidential debate: Pence repeatedly made statements that were either misleading or untrue.

Rather than laying out his honest disagreements with Harris and Joe Biden — be they on tax policy, abortion, policing, immigration, the environment, or any number of other issues — Pence misrepresented the Trump administration’s record and Biden’s.

To be clear, both Pence and Harris also engaged in mild overstatement and rhetorical flourishes at times. That’s normal in politics. Harris, for example, exaggerated the job losses that President Trump’s trade war with China has caused. But Pence was far more dishonest. At several points, he seemed to want to run on a record that didn’t exist.

Here’s a partial list:

The most disappointing aspect of Pence’s performance is that he has deep disagreements with Harris and Biden that don’t depend on distortions. It’s entirely possible to make a fact-based case against higher taxes on the rich; or widely available abortions; or high levels of immigration; or new restrictions on police.

But that is not what Pence did.

A strong moment for each candidate: Harris’s opening remarks, taking the administration to task for the terrible toll of the coronavirus on the U.S.; Pence’s celebrating the Trump administration’s turn to a more hawkish approach to China, which has since become a bipartisan consensus.

Speaking time: Despite the vice president’s repeated interruptions, the two debaters spoke for nearly identical amounts of time over all: almost 36 minutes and 30 seconds.

Questions unanswered: Harris refused to answer Pence’s direct question about whether Democrats would expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court. Pence didn’t answer when the moderator asked him why America’s pandemic death toll is disproportionate to its population and what he would do if Trump refused to accept the election results.

Post-debate instant polls: 59 percent thought Harris won, 38 percent thought Pence won, CNN’s poll found.

A Marine was posted outside the West Wing on Wednesday, signaling that the president was inside.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times
  • In a video from outside the White House, Trump called his coronavirus infection “a blessing from God” and took credit for the decision to treat himself with an experimental antibody therapy. He pledged to provide the drug to Americans free of charge, without offering any details. Hours later, the drug’s maker, Regeneron, said it had applied for emergency F.D.A. approval.

  • Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician, said Trump was symptom-free and feeling “great.” Conley offered few details about the president’s treatment, including whether he was still taking a steroid meant to treat severe Covid-19 cases.

  • After Trump scuttled negotiations over a full pandemic relief bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed a narrower stand-alone bill to bail out the airline industry.

  • Many Notre Dame students and faculty members are furious at the university’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, after he attended a White House event without a mask and then tested positive. The student newspaper called his behavior an “embarrassment.”

  • Officials in Boston are delaying their plan to reopen public school classrooms after the city’s rate of positive test results has climbed.

The 2020 Campaign

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Children playing in crude oil from a spill in Cabimas, Venezuela.Credit...Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times
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Holding an in-person debate during a pandemic creates risks, no matter how many precautions the debate’s organizers take. And the precautions for last night’s debate were pretty weak, as experts told my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli.

This morning, the Commission on Presidential Debates said the next debate between Trump and Biden would be held virtually, rather than in person. The president immediately responded, “I’m not going to do a virtual debate.”

The precedent for a remote debate stretches back to the first year of televised presidential debates. As Frank Donatelli, a former aide to Ronald Reagan, writes in RealClearPolitics:

On Oct. 13, 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John Kennedy debated for a third time, this time a continent apart. Nixon was in a Los Angeles studio, Kennedy was in an identical studio in New York, and a panel of four questioners and moderator Jack Shadel of ABC were in a third location in Los Angeles.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy debated remotely in 1960.Credit...Associated Press

This remote format has some advantages, Donatelli noted. There is no audience to interrupt. The candidates can’t engage in stunts, like walking over to their opponent. And the debate moderator can control the microphones if one candidate keeps interrupting the other.

Donatelli wrote his article in May, even before the coronavirus infected Trump and parts of his inner circle. Donatelli’s conclusion: “Let the virtual debates of 2020 begin.”

Credit...Ryan Liebe for The New York Times

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