October 8, 2020 -- In a debate dominated by the escalating COVID-19 crisis, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris squared off on a host of health issues Wednesday night, including the Trump administration’s handling of the virus outbreak, the fate of Obamacare, and abortion rights.
From the get-go, the coronavirus crisis was front and center during the only vice presidential debate, held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Plexiglas shields separated Pence and Harris, who were seated more than 12 feet apart -- a safeguard requested by the senator and initially opposed (but later agreed to) by the vice president. The candidates did not wear masks, but members of the audience were required to do so.
The precautions were stark reminders of how the coronavirus has ravaged the nation -- killing more than 211,000 people, roiling the U.S. economy, upending American life, and remaking the presidential campaign.
Overall, the debate was more civil than the wild exchanges that marred last week’s presidential debate, with President Donald Trump frequently interrupting and hectoring former Vice President Joe Biden and even sparring with moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.
While neither vice presidential candidate broke much new ground on the policy positions of their campaigns, the event marked the first real exchange of ideas on health policy.
Moderator Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, opened the debate by turning the discussion to the White House’s coronavirus response under Trump.
Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, acknowledged the U.S. is going through “a very challenging time,” but he defended and praised the president’s overall response to the crisis.
He singled out Trump’s decision to ban travel from China on January 31, federal efforts testing 150 million Americans for the virus, and the White House’s “Operation Warp Speed” program to fast-track a COVID-19 vaccine. To date, the federal government has contracted with six drug companies -- spending nearly $11 billion -- and Pence said “tens of millions” of shots would be available by year’s end. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. has said that number is more likely to be available in the early part of next year.
Harris called Trump’s coronavirus response “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”
She accused the president of not publicly disclosing that he knew as early as Jan. 28 that the coronavirus represented a significant threat -- something revealed in taped interviews with veteran journalist Bob Woodward released last month.
“They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you,” Harris said, adding later, “They knew, and they covered it up.”
She criticized the president for consistently downplaying the public health risks of COVID-19, even after he and first lady Melania Trump were infected with the virus last week. She also said the president has set a bad example by questioning his own health advisers’ recommendations on mask-wearing and social distancing.
In addition, Harris ticked off a list of actions her running mate, former Vice President Joe Biden, has proposed to combat and control the virus. Those initiatives include free COVID-19 testing and vaccinations for all Americans, hiring 100,000 contact tracers and providing “sufficient” personal protective equipment (PPE), and boosting pay for health care workers. Biden also said this week he would impose a mask mandate on federal property.
Pence dismissed suggestions that Trump has sent mixed messages by not wearing masks or embracing social distancing, arguing that those decisions are “personal” and Americans should be able to make their own judgments.
Without offering specifics, he suggested Biden “plagiarized” Trump’s coronavirus game plan in coming up with his own plan -- a veiled reference to Biden’s withdrawal from his first presidential run 3 decades ago because of a plagiarism scandal.
Pence also defended the White House Rose Garden ceremony last month for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, where Pence and other attendees were sitting close together, most not wearing masks. He said “a great deal of speculation” was prompted by the event, but he noted it was outdoors and said “everyone” was tested for COVID-19 beforehand.
That Sept. 26 event, and a reception inside the White House that followed it, is now seen as a “superspreader” event that led to a surge in coronavirus cases among some of the Trump administration’s top officials and three Republican senators. An internal memo from the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that 34 people connected to the White House have been infected, according to ABC News.
The candidates also sparred over questions about the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine and how well it would work.
When Page asked Harris if she would take the vaccine once it’s available, she said she’d follow the advice of experts like Fauci. "If Dr. Fauci, the doctors, tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it," she said. "But if Donald Trump tells us we should take it, I'm not going to take it."
The comment drew a sharp rebuke from Pence, who accused the California Democratic senator of undermining public confidence in the vaccine.
“Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” the vice president said.
Obamacare, Abortion, and the Supreme Court
Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, and his push to have the Senate approve her by Nov. 3, drew some of the sharpest exchanges of the evening.
The president and GOP-led Senate are moving to seat Barrett before the election. That could allow her to take part in the court’s ruling on a lawsuit seeking to strike down the Affordable Care Act, to be taken up Nov. 10, and weigh in on any future vote involving Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling granting a woman’s legal right to abortion.
Democrats have opposed Senate action before Election Day, noting that people are already voting.
Harris praised Biden’s efforts to help pass the 2010 act and criticized the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal it just as the nation is confronting the biggest health crisis in 100 years.
She noted Obamacare provides a range of health protections for Americans that would disappear if the law is overturned by the high court. It requires insurers to cover Americans with pre-existing conditions, without charging them more. It also allows parents to keep their children on their health policies until the age of 26.
“If you have a pre-existing condition -- heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer -- they’re coming for you,” Harris said. “If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”
Pence called Obamacare “a disaster” and echoed Trump’s claims that he has a “better plan” to replace it, although the president has yet to release any comprehensive health care plan.
“President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect pre-existing conditions for every American,” Pence said.
Trump’s Supreme Court nominee has also raised the possibility the high court could overturn Roe vs. Wade.
Pence refused to say whether he would like to see a ban on abortion, but said he is anti-abortion, “and I don’t apologize for it.”
Harris said, “I will always support a woman’s right to make her own decision.”