Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as she answers a question during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool) Harris-Pence Debate
Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as she answers a question during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

C&P writer Jesse James DeConto takes us inside the one-and-only vice presidential debate, and tells us what North Carolinians should take away from two very different candidates. 

Wednesday’s first and only vice presidential debate opened with a pair of questions that may well decide the 2020 election, not only in North Carolina, but across the nation. 

Incumbent Mike Pence and his challenger, Sen. Kamala Harris, squared off for 90 minutes, with the bulk of the time related to the COVID-19 pandemic and related issues. 

Like everywhere else, North Carolina has suffered from the health crisis and the ensuing economic collapse. The leaders elected to the White House and to Congress next month will chart the course for national and global recovery. The Senate seat currently occupied by Sen. Thom Tillis could help to swing the balance of power in that chamber, potentially giving the Democrats control of both the White House and Congress, or cementing a divided government, with the Democrats likely to hold the House.

“The stakes have never been higher,” said Pence.

Covid-19 Response

Moderator Susan Page of USA Today asked Pence why the American death rate has been so much higher than other world nations after asking Harris how she and Biden would handle the pandemic differently. Page specifically mentioned Canada, where fatalities per 100,000 in population have been less than half the number in the U.S. On this measure, the U.S. ranks sixth-worst of any nation, clustered with other heavily hit countries like Brazil and the United Kingdom, with far worse outcomes than places like Russia and India. 

North Carolina, which has employed stricter lockdowns than other Southern states, has suffered 35 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC, about half the national average.

As you might expect, given our political polarization even on public health recommendations such as wearing masks, Harris and Pence offered very different assessments of how the vice president’s White House Coronavirus Task Force has handled the pandemic. 

Pence called President Trump’s response “the greatest national mobilization since World War II, and I believe it saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.” 

Harris called it “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.  … Frankly, this administration has forfeited their right to re-election based on this.”

Pence praised the preventative measures taken by the American people, while Harris focused her criticism on Trump’s early downplaying of the COVID crisis.

“They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you. Can you imagine if you knew on Jan. 28 as opposed to March 13, what they knew? What you might have done to prepare?”

Harris asked viewers. “You respect the American people by telling the truth.” 

Harris would not commit to stricter lockdowns or a nationwide mandate for protective masks in public but emphasized free and accessible testing and vaccination and economic aid for suffering workers and businesses. 

A High Point University poll last week found that North Carolina’s voters trust Biden over Trump to stop the spread of the disease, 46% to 37%. They also give Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper a higher job approval rating than President Trump.

Jobs and the Economy

Pence and Harris likewise clashed on jobs and unemployment and on who deserves the credit and the blame for an economy that had steadily grown since early in President Obama’s first term, until the shutdowns that were required to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

North Carolina’s unemployment rate was down to 3.6% at the end of Obama’s second term and had hovered around 4% during four years under Trump. In April, after COVID-19 landed on our shores, 13% of workers were unemployed, and half that number have returned to work over the past six months. 

“2021 is going to be the biggest economic year in the history of this country,” Pence promised.

But Harris said there’s no reason to believe Trump can deliver on that promise, as before the pandemic, the American economy was on the same upward trajectory that began under Obama and Biden.

“Joe Biden is the one who during the Great Recession was responsible for the Recovery Act that brought America back,” Harris said. “And now the Trump-Pence administration wants to take credit when they rode the coattails of Joe Biden’s success for the economy that they had at the beginning of their term.”

More importantly, Harris said, whereas Trump’s economic policy has focused on tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, Biden would undo those tax cuts and reinvest in infrastructure, clean energy, research and development and education. 

“That’s how Joe Biden thinks about our economy,” Harris said. “It’s about investing in the people of our country.” 

White House ‘Superspreader’ Event

Page pressed the vice president regarding Amy Coney Barrett’s Sept. 26 Supreme Court nomination ceremony in the Rose Garden, after which nearly a dozen prominent people tested positive for coronavirus infections, including the president, the first lady and North Carolina’s junior Sen. Thom Tillis

Page called it a “superspreader event,” where attendees did not practice social distancing and where few of them wore protective masks. Amidst fears that President Trump or members of his family may have infected Biden or other attendees of last week’s presidential debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates required Pence and Harris to sit behind plexi-glass barriers.  

“How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you in the White House have not been doing that?” Page asked.

Pence did not express regret for the orchestration of the event and instead criticized Biden and Harris for wanting to mandate protective measures and to provide access to affordable healthcare for all Americans. 

“The work of the president of the United States goes on. A vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States has come upon us,” Pence said. “The difference here is: President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.” 

Harris rebutted by saying Trump undercut Americans’ freedom by not telling them the truth. 

“The American people have had to sacrifice far too much because of the incompetence of this administration,” she said. “It is asking too much of the people that they would not be equipped with the information that they need in order to protect themselves.”

Vaccine Safety

Pence accused Harris of undermining public confidence in a potential coronavirus vaccine and of “playing politics with people’s lives.” Page noted that half of Americans say they wouldn’t take a vaccine if it were available right now, asking the senator from California if she plans to be immunized when the treatment is available.

“If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely,” she said. “But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it.”

Here in the Triangle, both Duke University and the UNC School of Medicine are involved in clinical trials for coronavirus vaccines. The Cape Fear Valley Health System in Fayetteville is also participating in trials with the Massachusetts pharmaceutical company Moderna. Scientists are working on more than 100 different potential vaccines, testing most on animals but nearly 50 have reached human trials, with hopes that an effective vaccine could be widely available in 2021. 

The Affordable Care Act and the US Supreme Court

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, President Trump has nominated a potential Supreme Court justice who has already publicly criticized the Affordable Care Act, under which millions of Americans, including 500,000 North Carolinians, are insured both against COVID-19 and other health problems. Due to pandemic job losses, more than 600,000 in the state could stand to lose health insurance if the ACA is repealed during the pandemic, according to the nonpartisan Center for American Progress. Just a week after the Nov. 3 election, SCOTUS is scheduled to re-litigate Obamacare

The ACA has been a contentious issue in North Carolina. Since it passed in 2010, the Republican-led General Assembly has made North Carolina one of 12 states refusing to accept additional funding to cover more North Carolinians under Medicaid, a decades-old program and one of the tools for increasing coverage through Obamacare.  Three-quarters of North Carolinians support Medicaid expansion.

“Obamacare was a disaster, and the American people remember it well,” Pence said. 

Harris, of course, sees it differently. “It saved those families who were otherwise going bankrupt,” she said.

Because Trump’s 2017 tax reform removed the ACA’s penalty for a taxpayer not having health insurance, lower courts have declared President Obama’s signature achievement to be unconstitutional. That’s what’s at question before the Supreme Court next month. If the court invalidates the Affordable Care Act, not only would 20 million Americans lose the health coverage they have through the federal Marketplace, Congress would need to act to preserve protections for patients with pre-existing medical conditions, which previous to the ACA, insurance companies could decline to cover. 

“If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you,” Harris said, pointing at Pence. “If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you.” 

Pence insisted the Trump administration would find a way to protect pre-existing conditions if the ACA falls. Later, when Page pushed him to explain how, Pence dodged the question and instead asked whether Biden and Harris planned to “pack” the Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices beyond its current nine. 

Harris likewise ignored Pence’s question and instead talked about how former President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 had declined to confirm a new justice with his own Republicans in control of the Senate because it was within a month of that year’s election. She also pointed out that Trump had appointed 50 appellate judges during his first-term.

“And not one of them is Black,” she said. “You want to talk about packing the court.”

This summer, the Pew Research Center reported that Trump had appointed non-white judges at a rate lower than any president since George H.W. Bush 30 years ago.