On Wednesday, October 7, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) met head-to-head in the first and only 2020 vice presidential debate. The candidates convened in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Debate moderator, Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page of USA Today, led the candidates through what were intended to be 10 minute segments touching on nine topics including: the coronavirus pandemic; safeguards and procedures in the event of presidential disability; the economy; climate change; the U.S. and China; the Supreme Court; racial justice; the election; and immigration. Due to extended portions of debate and responses between the candidates, the topic of immigration was not reached within the hour and a half broadcast.
Highlights pertaining to health care follow:
- COVID-19 Pandemic – Ms. Page asked Sen. Harris what a Biden-Harris Administration would do differently in January and February of 2021 in regards to COVID-19 response. Senator Harris largely spent her response recounting the impacts of the pandemic so far under the Trump Administration’s watch, which she called “the greatest failure of any administration in the history of our country.” She spoke directly to the camera stating that the President and Vice President Pence were informed on January 28th that the virus was lethal and that it was airborne, but that they didn’t warn the American public. She added that the Biden Administration would implement a national strategy of contact tracing and vaccine distribution, while the Trump Administration still has no plan. She concluded, “this Administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this.”
Ms. Page asked Vice President Pence why the U.S. death toll from the virus is higher than in any other wealthy nation, noting that he is the lead of the White House Task Force on COVID-19. The Vice President defended the Administration’s record, stating that the President’s move to restrict travel from China “bought us the time to stand up the greatest mobilization since World War II,” which he contended saved thousands of lives. He also pointed to efforts to develop a vaccine, which he said would yield tens of millions of doses before the end of the year. Further, the Vice President said that the Biden plan for pandemic response “looks a lot like plagiarism,” claiming that it contains measures that his Administration has been taking all along.
Ms. Page said to the Vice President that he recently sat in the front row of a “super-spreader” event in the White House rose garden, where most attendees sat maskless. She asked him how he could expect the American people to follow the safety guidelines recommended such as wearing masks and social distancing, when they have not. Vice President Pence again defended the Administration’s record, but stated that “the truth is that the work of the President goes on,” noting the importance of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. He went on to say that the Trump Administration trusts and respects the American people to make choices in the best interest of their own health, whereas the Biden Administration will take the tact of government control. Senator Harris retorted that if they respected the American people, they would have told them the truth.
- Vaccine Confidence – Ms. Page stated that polling suggests as many as half of Americans would not opt to take a COVID-19 vaccine if it were to come out right now. She asked Senator Harris to discuss comments she has made regarding the safety and efficacy of vaccines under development. Sen. Harris clarified that she would be first in line to take a vaccine if public health officials and scientists tell us to, but that she will not trust that recommendation if it comes from President Trump. Later, Vice President Pence used his time allotted for another question to double back and say to the Senator that her “continuous undermining” in the confidence of these vaccines is unconscionable and unacceptable.
- Affordable Care Act and Preexisting Conditions – Senator Harris pointed to Joe Biden’s role in bringing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law during the Obama Administration, stating that the law brought health care to over 20 million Americans, protected people with preexisting conditions, and saved families from medical bankruptcy. On the other hand, she said, Donald Trump is in court right now trying to get rid of the ACA. She looked again into the camera and said, “if you have a preexisting condition – heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer – they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a preexisting condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents coverage, they’re coming for you.” Vice President Pence stated that “Obamacare was a disaster,” and asserted that he and President Trump have a plan to improve healthcare and to protect preexisting conditions for every American.” He then pivoted back to the topic of fossil fuels, without elaborating.
In a later segment, Ms. Page provided the Vice President an opportunity to explain the Administration’s plan to maintain protections for people with preexisting conditions. The Vice President again did not respond and changed the topic.
- Roe vs. Wade – Ms. Page noted that Amy Coney Barret’s confirmation to the Supreme Court would cement a conservative majority, opening the possibility of further abortion restrictions or even the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. She asked Vice President Pence what he would want his home state of Indiana to do if Roe vs. Wade is overturned and abortion rights are left up to the states. Vice President Pence said he could not be more enthusiastic to see Judge Barret become Justice Barret, noting that she will bring a lifetime of experience and “a sizable American family to the Supreme Court.” He said he hopes she gets a fair hearing, and that particularly hope we do not see her attacked for her Catholic faith. Asked the same original question about Roe vs. Wade, Sen. Harris also pivoted to the Judge’s confirmation saying it isn’t appropriate to move forward while the election is already underway. She then noted the important issues at stake, including choice, and stated that she will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body.” She noted again that the ACA is also on the line, and that Donald Trump is in court trying to get rid of the law during a pandemic.
Vice President Pence stated that he is pro-life and does not apologize for it. He then claimed that Joe Biden and Sen. Harris support “tax-payer funded abortion all the way up to the moment of birth [fact check] – late term abortion – and that they want to increase funding to Planned Parenthood.” He stated that he and President Trump will “continue to stand strong for the right to life.”