Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had their first and only debate on Wednesday night. And for nearly all of those 90 minutes, Pence lied and deflected his way out of tough questions about the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus, the tanking economy, their attacks on health care and the seriousness of climate change.
President Donald Trump faced questions on some of these same subjects last week in his debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. But what was different this time around was that Pence showed what it looks like when someone without the impulsive mania of the president has to defend an administration’s record that is all but indefensible.
Instead of talking over his opponent, Pence found more polite ways to avoid answering for the administration’s mistakes.
In one instance, Pence tried to offset criticism of the White House’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic with an attack on Biden’s role in containing the swine flu in 2009 and 2010.
“We actually do know what failure looks like in a pandemic,” Pence claimed. “It was 2009. Swine flu arrived in the United States.”
There is simply no comparison between the destruction wrought by COVID-19 and the H1N1 virus, known as swine flu. As Pence went on to admit, the swine flu killed fewer than 13,000 Americans compared with the more than 211,000 who have died of COVID-19 and the 7.5 million who have tested positive for the virus. Because H1N1 was far less contagious, it also did not require a shutdown of the economy and drastic changes to Americans’ way of life. And, as yet, there is no vaccine for COVID-19.
On the economy, Harris said the Trump administration’s failure to respond to the coronavirus has led to 1 in 5 businesses closing and more than 30 million Americans filing for unemployment.
Trump measures the strength of the economy “based on how rich people are doing,” Harris said, “which is why he passed a tax bill benefiting the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a $2 trillion deficit that the American people are going to have to pay for.”
Pence didn’t address the nation’s suffering economy and instead accused Biden of trying to “tax and spend and regulate and fail our way back to a growing economy” when he was vice president.
“Despite what Sen. Harris says, the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings and taxes,” he said, glossing over the fact that Trump has left the country teetering on the edge of a recession.
Pence’s silence in response to hard questions also spoke volumes. He pivoted to other issues when asked about health care.
“President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect preexisting conditions for all Americans,” the vice president claimed, which is something Trump and Republicans have been saying for years but have never produced. On the contrary, the Trump administration is actively trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which more than 20 million Americans rely on for health care.
In other moments, Pence responded to Harris’s critiques of his administration’s governance with flat-out lies.
Harris recalled how Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that he did not warn the public in late January about how lethal the coronavirus was because he “wanted people to remain calm.”
“I want to ask the American people: How calm were you when you were panicked about where you were going to get your next roll of toilet paper?” she asked. “How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know when they were going to go back? How calm were you when your children couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid you could kill them?”
Pence, who chairs the White House’s coronavirus task force, denied that Trump ever concealed any relevant information about the disease. But Woodward’s audio shows Trump discussing the virus’s severity in early February, even as he continued to downplay it publicly.
The vice president said that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had said that “everything that he told the president in the Oval Office, the president told the American people.”
But that’s not quite accurate. Fauci said in September that he “didn’t see any discrepancies” between his private discussions with the president and what the president told the public. He did not dispel the idea that Trump misled the public about the nature of the threat.
When debate moderator Susan Page asked Pence if he thinks climate change is an existential threat, Pence ignored the question altogether.
“The climate is changing,” said the vice president, stating the obvious. “The issue is, what’s the cause and what do we do about it? President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to the science.”
The science is clear that climate change is driven by manmade greenhouse gas emissions and that if it’s not technically an existential threat, it’s a catastrophic one.
Pence tried to put the focus back on Harris and make her defend the Green New Deal, a progressive climate policy framework that proposes phasing out fossil fuels by 2035 and banning natural gas fracking. Harris supported both policies as a presidential candidate but has embraced Biden’s more moderate climate agenda since joining his ticket.
She retorted that, unlike the Trump administration, a Biden administration would let data and science dictate its response to climate change. Just a few weeks ago, Trump baselessly questioned climate science during a California wildfire briefing.
“We have seen a pattern with this administration, which is that they don’t believe in science,” Harris said. “Joe’s plan is about saying, ‘We’re going to deal with it, but we’re also going to create jobs.’”
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