VP debate 2020: Pence and Harris clash on coronavirus pandemic

09 October 2020 BBC Online
VP debate 2020: Pence and Harris clash on coronavirus pandemic

Democratic vice presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence take part in the 2020 vice presidential debate on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S. on Wednesday.


The contenders for US vice-president have clashed over the coronavirus pandemic in their only debate ahead of next month's election.
Democrat Kamala Harris called Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic "the greatest failure of any presidential administration" in history.
Vice-President Mike Pence, a Republican, said the Democratic Party's pandemic plan amounted to "plagiarism".
Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads Mr Trump with 26 days to go to the vote.
Opinion polls indicate the Republican president is trailing by single digits in a handful of battleground states that will decide who wins. Vice-presidents have tie-breaking power in the Senate and are required to step in if a president is unable to perform their duties. Their day-to-day responsibilities vary with each administration, but they typically serve as top advisers and some take on specific policy portfolios.
Wednesday night's meeting was a civil debate between two smooth communicators compared to last week's belligerent showdown between Mr Trump and Mr Biden, which degenerated into insults and name-calling.
Mr Pence did not interrupt as much as the president last week, but when he did, Ms Harris interjected: "Mr Vice-President, I'm speaking, I'm speaking." The viral moment on Wednesday was a fly landing on Mr Pence's head and remaining there for some two minutes.
The 90-minute televised debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City was marked by disagreements over the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic.
Ms Harris accused Mr Pence and the president of deliberately misleading Americans about the lethality of coronavirus.
"They knew, and they covered it up," she said, adding that they had "forfeited their right to re-election".
Mr Pence accused the Biden-Harris campaign of copying the White House's pandemic strategy, alluding to a blunder that ended Mr Biden's 1987 run for the presidency when he plagiarised a speech by then-British Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
Ms Harris was asked by the moderator whether she would take an approved Covid-19 vaccine distributed ahead of the election.
The 55-year-old California senator said she would not take a jab touted by Mr Trump without the say-so of medical professionals.
Mr Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, retorted: "The fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration I think is unconscionable."
The plexiglass barriers separating the two debaters seated 12ft (3.6m) apart were a vivid reminder of the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
The president - who is himself recovering from the virus - returned to the White House on Monday evening after three nights in hospital, with his opinion poll numbers drooping.
On Wednesday he declared that catching the disease was a "blessing from God" that exposed to him to experimental treatments he vowed would become free for all Americans.
The virus, meanwhile, has spread through the West Wing of the White House and infected figures inside the president's re-election campaign.
ABC News reported that an internal government memo, dated Wednesday, said "34 White House staffers and other contacts" had been infected in recent days.
Vice-presidential debates seldom shake up presidential races, and the face-off between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence on Wednesday night seems destined to be no different. Both candidates had strong moments, and a few stumbles, over the course of the 90-minute affair. But as far as lasting memories go, they were few and far between.
If this was a match that showcased the futures of the Democratic and Republican parties, the real fireworks will have to wait for the coming years.
An unmemorable result, in and of itself, is good news for the Democrats and Joe Biden, who polls suggest are leading in the race. One more campaign set-piece in the books, and one step closer to election day.
On the question of racial justice, Mr Pence expressed shock at the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. But he added: "There is no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed."
He pointed to one of his guests in the auditorium, Flora Westbrooks, a black woman whose hair studio was destroyed during unrest in Minneapolis.
He said Mr Biden and Ms Harris's claim that America is systemically racist and that police have an implicit bias against minorities is "a great insult".
Ms Harris - who was making history by becoming the first black woman to stand on a vice-presidential debate stage - said: "Last week the president of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists."
"Not true, not true," said Mr Pence, arguing that when Ms Harris was a prosecutor in San Francisco African Americans were more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offences than whites or Latinos.
The debate was notable for the questions that the candidates did not directly answer.
Mr Pence twice pressed Ms Harris on whether Mr Biden would expand the number of seats on the Supreme Court, which has had nine justices for a century and a half, but she spoke instead about Mr Trump's current judicial nominee.
The Constitution does not say how many justices there must be on the Supreme Court, so if a president and Congress were to agree they could change the law to expand or shrink it.
Some Democrats have suggested doing this amid arguments over Mr Trump's nominee, whose confirmation would cement a right-leaning majority on the top court. Mr Biden has not said whether he would support expanding the court if he became president.
Mr Pence - a mild mannered former Indiana governor known for his steadfast loyalty to Mr Trump - did not answer questions about whether he would want his home state of Indiana to ban abortion, or how the Trump administration would ensure medical coverage for sick Americans. Focus on the running mates has intensified given 74-year-old Mr Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis, and the fact that Mr Biden would be the oldest president ever to take office at 78.
But when asked by the debate moderator about the chances of them taking over the presidency, both candidates skirted the subject.
Mr Pence, 61, assailed Mr Biden's handling of the 2009 swine flu outbreak, and Ms Harris - the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father - spoke of her own biography.

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