The Morning Jolt


Tonight’s VP Debate

Banners hang on Kingsbury Hall, a day ahead of the vice presidential debate on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, October 6, 2020. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

On the menu today: a big preview of tonight’s much-higher-stakes-than-usual debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, and a rather absurd criticism of Amy Coney Barrett.

Pence. Harris. The Veep Debate Is Tonight

Tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern is the vice-presidential debate, and almost every four years, the media hype the event with “most vice-presidential debates don’t amount to much, but this year, this one really matters!” And for once, it appears true. The president appears to be recovering from his coronavirus infection well, but we never know for certain whether a president will serve a full term. And Joe Biden turns 78 shortly after the election. Either Mike Pence or Kamala Harris could well end up taking the oath of office before January 20, 2025.

Virginia senator Tim Kaine was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2016. I mention this because many people, including those who follow politics, periodically forget this fact. It was the wildest, craziest, most unpredictable, and most surprising presidential race in U.S. history, and somehow, it’s as if the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee was erased from our collective memories.

I remember Pence doing well in the debate four years ago, but I didn’t remember how many headlines — at media institutions that never wanted to give the Trump campaign much credit for anything — begrudgingly admitted Pence did a better job than his Democratic counterpart.

The Los Angeles Times: “We scored the debate and Mike Pence won.

The Guardian: “It wasn’t a pretty night for Tim Kaine.

Vox: “Why Mike Pence beat Tim Kaine at the VP debate, in one tweet.

The Associated Press: “Republican Mike Pence won bipartisan plaudits for a calm and collected performance in the vice presidential debate . . . even Clinton’s team wasn’t claiming that Kaine had come out on top, despite the chest-puffing that usually follows a political debate. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said only that Kaine had succeeded in his ‘strategic mission’ to challenge Pence to defend his controversial running mate.”

Kamala Harris will be more aggressive than Tim Kaine; she was aggressive enough to more or less call Joe Biden a racist in that first debate, a direct attack that had stunningly little long-term fallout.

The word is Harris will go after Pence for the administration’s response to the coronavirus, including Pence’s April 24 statement, “I think honestly, if you look at the trends today, that I think by Memorial Day weekend we will have this coronavirus epidemic behind us.” I wouldn’t be surprised if she brought up Pence not wearing a mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic in April; Pence subsequently said he should have worn a mask.

Harris may well point out that at last week’s debate, Trump declared, “I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from him and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” As we now know, sometime that week Trump was infected with coronavirus.

Harris and Pence will be separated by Plexiglas barriers, and at some point, Harris may emphasize that she thinks it is necessary after last week’s revelations. A moment before mocking Biden’s masks as being too large, Trump said, “I have a mask right here. I put a mask on when I think I need it. Tonight, as an example, everybody’s had a test and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to, but I wear masks when needed.”

Except the Cleveland Clinic, which was in charge of coronavirus precautions for the event, didn’t test the president and his entourage. Their statement was, “Individuals traveling with both candidates, including the candidates themselves, had been tested and tested negative by their respective campaigns.” The clinic and debate organizers presumed that President Trump, the first lady, and his staff had been verified as virus-free by the White House and/or Trump campaign . . . except we now learn that assurances that the president being tested “regularly” did not mean “every day.”

Yet the president himself was not tested every day, according to two people familiar with the practices. A senior administration official would only say on Tuesday that Mr. Trump was tested “regularly.” Mr. Trump himself told reporters in the White House briefing room in July that “I do take probably on average a test every two days, three days.”

And the first family, including Melania Trump, did not wear masks at the debate. Harris is likely to declare that the president scoffed about Biden’s mask when he was either infected, or on the verge of being infected, and then likely brought infected people with him to the last debate.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed June 16, Pence declared, “Cases have stabilized over the past two weeks, with the daily average case rate across the U.S. dropping to 20,000 — down from 30,000 in April and 25,000 in May. And in the past five days, deaths are down to fewer than 750 a day, a dramatic decline from 2,500 a day a few weeks ago — and a far cry from the 5,000 a day that some were predicting.” Daily new cases increased for a while after that, peaking around 75,000 new cases in stretches of late June and July, and daily new deaths in the 1,000 to 1,500 range in summer. We are in somewhat better shape these days, with about 40,000 new cases per day, and about 700 to 900 deaths per day.

That op-ed declared, “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’” That is a reasonably accurate assessment, in the sense that the first wave never really stopped spreading into new communities.

There are other vulnerabilities for the vice president regarding administration’s coronavirus response. A school that Pence visited in August had to enact a quarantine days later after a student tested positive. A meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., that Pence urged to remain open had three workers die of coronavirus infections after reopening. The vice president did not carry empty boxes in a photo-op meant to suggest he was personally delivering personal protective equipment, but the head of an association of 5,000 assisted-living facilities did write to the vice president, “While it may not be your intention, these photo-ops send a false impression that nursing homes and other aging services providers are getting what they need. That is nowhere close to the truth.” Pence had better be ready to address and rebut any of these arguments or examples.

On paper, that looks like a tall order for Pence. His largest advantage may be that all of these attacks are coming from Kamala Harris.

Harris’s political instincts are not great, or at least not consistently good. In the first two months of 2019, Harris — then still a hyped early contender for the Democratic nomination — pledged to eliminate private insurance in a CNN Town Hall and then quickly reversed herself, called the alleged “attack” on actor Jussie Smollett as “a modern day lynching,*” and had joked that of course she liked smoking marijuana because of her Jamaican heritage. This spurred one of the few public comments from her father, economist Donald Harris, who was irked:

 “My dear departed grandmothers as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation, and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics,” Donald Harris wrote to the Kingston-based website Jamaica Global Online. “Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.”

Matt Continetti astutely observed, “What trips up Kamala Harris is an evident desire to please her audience. She wants no enemies to her left, no identity politics left untouched. She can’t run as a prosecutor — crime fighting is so 1990s — but she can run as brash, bold, and woke. Her verbal miscues are possible evidence that this latest political fashion doesn’t quite fit.”

In Vanity Fair, Peter Hamby wrote a blistering postmortem of her campaign, in part because it was so simple and fair:

Her San Francisco-based consulting team was blamed for trying to graft a California political strategy onto a national campaign. Staffers also blamed the communications team for devoting too much energy to Twitter spats invisible to the public at large, antagonizing reporters rather than managing their fragile egos. But as with any campaign, the fault lies with the candidate, for not making hard calls and failing to give the campaign a North Star to push it forward and above the drama. No staffer is to blame. No family member is to blame. The media isn’t to blame. Twitter isn’t to blame. Biden and Buttigieg and Warren and Sanders aren’t to blame, and neither are their supporters. The only person responsible for erasing Kamala Harris is Kamala Harris, for the too-often-overlooked reason that she failed to explain to Democrats why she deserved to be president of the United States.

Harris is significantly to the left of Joe Biden, the average Democrat, and the average American. All Pence needs to do tonight is get Harris to show that, and he will have made the best possible case for four more years of the Trump administration.

*Harris’s tweet declaring that the Smollett hoax was a “lynching” is still up.

UPDATE: This morning, the Washington Post reports, “a 2010 People of Praise directory states that Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett held the title of “handmaid,” a leadership position for women in the community, according to a directory excerpt obtained by the Post.” Good God, ACB’s story literally is a Handmaid’s Tale!

Senator Ben Sasse sends along his reaction to the story: “Catholic believes Catholic stuff, story at eleven. . . . This conspiracy theory that a brilliant jurist and an accomplished lawyer is secretly a subservient woman controlled by her husband’s ‘shadowy organization’ isn’t just stupid — it’s bigoted and sexist.”

As mentioned on The Editors podcast yesterday, just think of where Amy Coney Barrett would be now if her husband wasn’t keeping her down in accordance to some ancient sexist religious dogma: Instead of being a “mere” federal appellate judge, professor of law at Notre Dame, and nominee to be a Supreme Court justice, she would have already united all of the nations of earth, built a fearsome space armada, and began her conquest of the known universe.


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