Sen. Kamala Harris debated Vice President Mike Pence Wednesday night, effectively touting Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s plans for the country, framing President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as inadequate and incompetent, and maneuvering the anticipated racial and gender dynamics of the historic event by focusing instead on voters and her experience.
“She showed her skills as a prosecutor and how she could translate those skills to the debate stage in arguing a case against a Trump-Pence administration,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. “At the same time, she did balance that with empathy and direct engagement with voters while repeatedly showing her competence. It was clear that she came prepared, knowing how her behavior would be monitored and evaluated in a different way than Mike Pence’s and she navigated that with a smile.”
With less than a month to go until Election Day and early voting already underway for millions of Americans, Wednesday night’s debate was the only opportunity for the vice presidential candidates to speak directly to so many voters. They drew sharp contrasts on issues including the handling of the coronavirus and racial injustice.
Harris — the lone Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate, the only Black woman to run during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and the first woman of color ever selected to join a major party ticket — has long had to contend with issues of race and gender in her barrier-breaking political career. On Wednesday, she brought that experience with her to the stage.
“Kamala was well-prepared and incredibly poised,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC. “As much as Black women are characterized as being undeserving, it’s clear that Kamala not only deserves the role she has ascended to, but she belongs there. And she projects that she is prepared, confident, ready and unafraid. She really is the best of us.”
The 90-minute debate between Harris and Pence was decidedly more calm and civil than last week’s first presidential debate, when Trump interrupted Biden more than 70 times and the candidates barely discussed policy. But while Pence praised Harris’ pioneering candidacy and was gentlemanly at times, the disciplined debater’s training occasionally failed him, leading him to interrupt both Harris and moderator Susan Page, albeit more politely.
At one point, when he spoke over Harris, she interjected, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Page frequently attempted to end Pence’s extended responses with, “Thank you, Mr. Vice President.”
For viewers watching the debate on television, the split-screen framing cropped out the clear, plastic barrier dividing the candidates, a protective measure put in place after Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 and the disease spread through the White House, and a physical reminder that the pandemic continues to spread across the nation.
Harris mentioned the coronavirus frequently, using the statistics of 7.5 million Americans diagnosed with the disease and the 210,000 who have died from it as a referendum on Pence’s role as head of the Coronavirus Task Force. When Pence recounted his version of the president’s response to the pandemic, Harris gave an incredulous look that seemed to mirror the frustration many Americans have had with the administration’s response to COVID-19’s impact on the country.
Other topics discussed during the course of the night were the role of the vice president, jobs and the economy, climate change, China and foreign policy, the Supreme Court, policing and racial inequality and the integrity of the election, though both immigration and LGBTQ+ issues were notably absent from the debate.
When Pence misspoke on the administration’s record or Biden’s past or future governing plans, Harris’s version of fact-checking often included a slight head shake while saying, “That’s not true.”
Lincoln Project co-founder Jennifer Horn said she found Pence “incredibly condescending and arrogant.”
“Pence did that typical thing that he does and too many other Republican men do, who think that they own the stage and own the debate and can somehow dominate a female debate opponent,” said Horn. “Kamala Harris and I do not fall on the same point on the political spectrum, but I was very proud of how she handled herself on that stage. If nothing else, it should put to rest any question that she is qualified to be there, that she deserves to be there.”
Horn said that Harris’ performance could resonate with Republican women “who care about things like equality and lifting up the community and empowering people and equal opportunity.”
“I think Kamala Harris gave them something to think about tonight,” Horn said. “It’s really powerful to watch her on that stage. It’s not that she held her own against Mike Pence — it’s that he was forced to hold his own against her.”