Doug Schoen: Harris and Pence at VP debate — winners, losers and more on style and substance

Doug Schoen: Harris and Pence at VP debate — winners, losers and more on style and substance

October 8, 2020

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Wednesday night’s vice-presidential face-off was a much better debate than the one last week between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump.

The differences between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris of California were stark and their positions were mostly — and I underscore mostly — articulated. And civility was mostly — but not entirely — maintained.

Yet it is safe to say that very little will change as a result of the 90-minute exchange between Democratic vice presidential nominee Harris and Republican Pence.

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The candidates’ ideological differences were clear. They were for the most part presented in a meaningful way that was arguably absent from the first presidential debate, which was mostly taken up with personal attacks.

However, the Wednesday debate — like most vice-presidential debates historically — likely will not impact polls, change any attitudes, cause either campaign to gain or lose any votes, or move any undecided voters one way or the other.

This is especially true because this debate in particular lacked any meaningful policy discussion between the candidates beyond echoing previously articulated policy positions.

Both Pence and Harris dodged difficult questions and pivoted to rehearsed answers or topics of their choice.

As I result, in my view the night was a draw on both substance and style.

In terms of substance, Harris was particularly strong in the first 25 minutes during the coronavirus-focused segment. She leveled sharp criticisms against Pence for the Trump administration’s generally poor handling of the pandemic, and took aim at the administration’s response in light of the damning revelations in Bob Woodward’s latest book that Trump admitted purposefully downplaying the threat of the virus.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any president in the history of our country,” Harris said. “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you. They knew and they covered it up.”

However, Harris also clearly avoided answering difficult questions about controversial topics —including the Biden-Harris ticket’s position on the Green New Deal, and most notably Harris’ non-answer to Pence’s question on whether she and Biden would “pack the courts” with liberal justices.

Like Harris, Pence had strong substantive moments — particularly during the tax-policy focused segment, where Pence did exactly what Donald Trump failed to do in last week’s debate: draw a meaningful contrast between Biden and Trump on taxes, and hammer home the point that a Biden administration will raise Americans’ taxes.

“America, you just heard Sen. Harris tell you, one Day One Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes,” Pence said, warning that Biden and Harris promised to repeal the Trump tax cuts.

Harris responded that Biden would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 annually.

Similar to Harris, Pence evaded answering questions on contentious subjects. These included the president’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and most notably, on a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

In terms of style, it is arguable that both candidates’ performances were exactly what members of their party hoped for.

Harris focused on attacking Trump and highlighting his administration’s failures — in her words, “prosecuting the case against Donald Trump.”

Democrats will likely laud her performance as strong, given that Harris attacked Trump in a way that was effective and resonated several times throughout the night.

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However, Harris’ delivery was similar to Biden’s in last week’s debate — meaning that while both Biden’s and Harris’ performances did no harm, they were inconsequential in the sense that they did nothing to project leadership.

Similarly, Republicans will likely praise Pence’s performance as strong, commanding and a clear display of leadership.

However, Pence at several instances talked over and interrupted Harris, as well as moderator Susan Page of USA Today, prompting Page at one point to pause and remind the vice president that his campaign had agreed to a set of speaking rules for the debate.

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Taken together with Pence’s waffling on abortion rights and the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision that barred states from outlawing abortion, the night likely did not bode well for the Trump-Pence ticket among suburban female voters — a bloc that Republicans are struggling to gain ground with.

Ultimately, given that Pence and Harris dodged difficult questions and largely stuck to previously articulated positions and attacks, the goal for the night on both sides was clearly to do no harm and to avoid any controversial moments. By this measure, both candidates were largely successful.

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