Both the vice president and Democratic nominee Kamala Harris suffered from a tendency to retreat into talking points rather than answer questions.
USA TODAY asked a diverse group of contributors to its Opinion section their impressions of how Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Mike Pence performed in Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate. Here are their answers:
Pence couldn’t defend an indefensible record: Ellis Cose
Vice President Mike Pence’s relatively calm demeanor reminded us that the White House executive suite is not peopled solely by raving maniacs of the sort Donald Trump became during the first presidential debate.
But, unfortunately for Pence, that was not his only task. He had to defend Trump’s record and his own. And valiantly as he tried to make sense out of (or rhetorically revise) the nonsensical and the negligent, he was no more successful at that than the president himself.
Both the vice president and Democratic nominee Kamala Harris suffered from a tendency to retreat into talking points rather than answer questions, although Pence was much clumsier at it.
With all the polls going against the president, Pence had the biggest challenge, and he simply didn’t have a good story to tell. It’s difficult to spin an out-of-control pandemic, a collapsed economy, a decline in international standing and an apparent indifference to suffering.
Pence did his best to change the subject, but his soothing words could not change the dispiriting record he was tasked to defend.
Ellis Cose, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is author of “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America,” and “Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100 Year Fight for Rights in America,” both published this year. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisCose
Pence was the clear winner: James Robbins
Donald Trump has a reputation for being a counter-puncher, but the vice presidential debate proved that Mike Pence is no slouch. His emotional response to Democratic nominee Kamala Harris’ discredited charge that President Trump disrespects the military was one of the most powerful moments of the debate.
Also, when Harris bragged about her role as California attorney general, it gave Pence the perfect opening to highlight the “law and order” aspects of her record that she has been trying to downplay.
Pence’s defense of the USMCA trade deal as benefiting autoworkers (read Michigan) and dairy workers (read Wisconsin) was masterful, including his jab at Harris for not supporting it because of her “radical environmentalism.”
And Harris’ attempt to duck the court-packing issue by saying the administration is already packing the federal judiciary with conservatives is actually a Trump campaign talking point.
Pence’s heartfelt closing comments about Americans coming together were strong, especially when he invoked the Antonin Scalia-Ruth Bader Ginsburg friendship as symbolizing hope that the American people can overcome their political divisions.
By contrast, Harris decided to close with the Charlottesville, Va., protest and stale platitudes about Joe Biden.
Probably few minds were changed by the debate, but Pence easily won on points.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.
Only Harris told the truth: Donna Brazile
Now that was a real debate. Both candidates, Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, were thoughtful, informative and civil. Only one candidate, however, told the truth to the American people, and that was Kamala.
We learned from this debate what we’re voting for and against in this election: between Republicans who minimize the severity of the coronavirus, climate change, racial divisions in our country, and the economic disparities between rich and poor and white and black, and who seek to limit health care only to those who can afford it; and Democrats who heed the words of scientists and doctors about COVID-19 – which has killed more than 210,000 Americans and infected our president, first lady, and many of their closest aides in the White House – who are trying to pass legislation in Congress to end systemic racism and to provide essential economic stimulus relief to unemployed Americans and small business owners, and who want to protect the Affordable Care Act and Americans with pre-existing conditions during a deadly pandemic.
So who won? Sen. Harris, who spoke directly, empathetically and truthfully to the American people — just like former Vice President Joe Biden did last week — about the challenges we are facing every day in these unprecedented times. About our safety. Our health. Our climate. Our rights as women. Our taxes. Our leadership in the world. Our democracy and the integrity of this election.
Donna Brazile, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a Fox News contributor, former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee and author of “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House.” Follow her on Twitter: @donnabrazile
Pence debates like he governs: Sally Kohn
It’s amazing to, yet again, watch a debate in which one side showed up intending to answer the questions and inform the American public about their views — while the other side showed up to ignore the rules, blow off every question and somehow talk as much as humanly possible while saying little that was meaningful or honest.
Watching Donald Trump and Mike Pence debate is like watching them govern — pretending there are no rules or laws, or at least that the rules and laws don’t apply to them.
Each episode is a reminder not only of the failures of their so-called leadership but the perhaps permanent destruction they have wrought on the norms of our society. Yeah, I blame the moderators. But only like I would blame an umpire for not blowing the whistle on cheating.
The real problem is the people doing the cheating. They not only are destroying our public health, our economy, our civility, any semblance of unity and progress and the lives of more than 210,000 Americans but also are trying to destroy the election.
Notably, Pence refused to say whether Trump would accept the outcome of the election. But that shouldn’t surprise us. From disenfranchising voters to sabotaging the debates, Trump and Pence are doing everything they can to ruin our democracy.
Sally Kohn, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of “The Opposite Of Hate: A Field Guide To Repairing Our Humanity.” You can find her online at sallykohn.com and on Twitter: @SallyKohn
Even Pence can’t defend Trump: Raul Reyes
The main takeaway from this debate was that even Mike Pence cannot ably defend the president’s record or character. Pence did not explain to the audience why the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is so high, nor could he offer a coherent reason for why the Trump administration is challenging the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic.
Instead we heard promises about a vaccine and tired talking points. The vice president frequently interrupted both Sen. Kamala Harris and moderator Susan Page, in a manner that was not only rude but also reminiscent of the president’s boorish debate appearance last week.
In contrast, Harris more than met the moment, with a cool, confident performance. She reminded voters of Trump’s reported insults of fallen service members, his bigotry and his refusal to condemn white supremacy at the last debate. She reiterated her ticket’s belief in climate change, and in waiting until after the election to nominate a new Supreme Court justice.
Her statistics about the health and economic impact of the coronavirus were on point. Harris reiterated her belief in systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and smartly brought up Trump’s taxes.
Her refrain during the debate, delivered with a smile — “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking” — will likely be fodder for Pence’s nightmares for weeks to come.
Raul A. Reyes, an attorney, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
Harris did what she needed to do: Chris Truax
If anyone still doubted whether presidential debate moderators need a mute switch, it was put to rest Wednesday night.
Perhaps I’ve developed an allergy after last week’s fiasco, but I found Vice President Pence constantly ignoring the moderator to be very off-putting. I doubt that it was a hit with suburban women, either — and Pence is supposed to be the nice one.
Sen. Harris did dodge a few questions herself but, overall, she stuck to the rules and gave much more tightly argued answers. In particular, her answers on COVID-19 were devastating.
Vice presidential debates are really about whether the candidates are up to being president, and Harris cleared that bar by a mile.
Pence needed a big win to shake up the race and he certainly didn’t get that. Harris did what she needed to do and then some. Harris wins on points.
Republican Chris Truax, an appellate lawyer in San Diego and CEO of CertifiedVoter.com, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.