Kamala Harris Takes the Vice Presidential Debate in a TKO

Though less entertaining, Kamala Harris & Mike Pence's 2020 VP debate restored some semblance of order to America's frail political system.


Image via Getty/Mason Trinca


If you missed the first and only vice presidential debate you missed the first real debate of the 2020 election season! Biden and Trump gave us must-see TV, but former San Francisco district attorney turned California attorney general turned Senator Kamala (pronounced “comma-la”) Harris (D-Ca) and the former radio show host turned former Indiana governor, Vice President Mike Pence gave us the substantive nine round bout we’ve been looking for—touching on topics from the pandemic to Breonna Taylor. 

Judging this debate solely on the candidate’s ability to answer the moderator’s questions and present their platform to the American people, I give this match to the Biden-Harris ticket. Harris takes the W because of her effective one-two combination of substantive information combined with a measured presentation style . To his credit, Pence got in a couple jabs with the buzzwords for his base—“the Democrats will raise your taxes;” “no impeachment, no collusion;” “looting and rioting”—but ultimately failed with his debate tactics. (My man really tried to come for Harris, a former lawyer, about legal history. Ha!)

If you missed the debate, here's a TL;DR rundown of the round by round highlights:  

  • In pre-debate action: Pence mocked Senator Harris' requirement to use a plexiglass divider (aka debate PPE) on the debate stage, despite the fact that his boss tested positive and was hospitalized for the coronavirus last week. “We have yet to hear medical evidence what the plexiglass is for," a top aide to the vice president told CNN on Tuesday. Pence's team later pivoted positions and agreed to the plexiglass barrier. 
  • On the coronavirus pandemic: Pence believes that closing the borders to China was an effective response, while Harris thinks the Trump administration hasn’t done nearly enough (as evidenced by the U.S. infection rates), demonstrating the "greatest failure of administration in our history." Harris also minced no words about the vaccine: "If Donald Trump tells us to take [the vaccine], I ain’t taking it.”
  • On the economy: Harris is offering to cut your student loan debt by ten thousand dollars. She also put Trump's business judgment front and center, “Trump thinks the trade war with China is an accomplishment…he lost…we are in a manufacturing recession." Pence stuck to his talking points, e.g. “Democrats are going to raise taxes,” “the Democrats are going to bring a Green Deal,” etc. 
Pence vs Harris VP debate
  • On climate change: Speaking of the environment, Pence went as far as acknowledging that “the climate is changing” and that Trump has made it clear he is listening to science. Harris responded by calling climate change an "existential threat," calling out the current administration’s removal of words like “science” and “climate change” from many government websites.
  • On women's issues: Pence mostly refused to discuss the topic, using his time to discuss U.S. international relations, before finally acknowledging that he remains pro-life. Harris says she will fight for a woman’s right to make a decision for herself and highlighted Trump’s efforts to dismantle the affordable care act, e.g. no more protections for people with pre-existing conditions (like, perhaps, coronavirus). 
  • Also to note: Pence did not explicitly commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and boldly mentioned that the current administration is “fighting everyday in courthouses [...] to prevent voter fraud” resulting from mail-in voting. Harris big upped her bipartisan coalition, which includes Cindy McCain and former Bush allies. Neither candidate answered the questions about America's relationship with China, or the role of the vice president in the event of "president disability" (given that either Trump or Biden, will be the oldest serving U.S. president). 

Best round for Pence 

Honestly, none. Despite being the incumbent, it’s easy to forget Pence. He’s been mostly behind the scenes these past four years, and even when on the debate stage is a bit like observing a glass of milk. Characteristic of his public speaking, he refrains from showing too much emotion and unapologetically deflects away from questions that he doesn't want to answer. He took this approach for five out of the eight debate rounds (VP Role, Climate Change, China, SCOTUS, and the Election/Transfer of Power), which made it really easy to distill his key talking points. Pence also relied on the familiar Trump tactic—talking over his opponent and talking over time—neither of which proved terribly effective because: a) most of the subjects he pivoted to are not on the minds of the general population, at this moment; and b) the optics of a white man talking over two women (aka mansplaining) is just bad, leading moderator Susan Page to call out that he had more speaking time than Harris about midway through the debate.  

Worst round for Pence

The Pandemic. This one obviously is a huge Achilles heel that Pence cannot deflect from or pivot  around, especially as the head of the White House coronavirus task force. Men lie, women lie, but those numbers don’t. It also doesn’t help that his boss likely caught covid at the “super-spreader” event in the Rose Garden at the White House. (Note: At the time of the debate, at least 13 members of the White House and Trump campaign staff have tested positive). If the current administration’s best response to this question and the pandemic is that they suspended travel from China (which when fact-checked was not the main source of the initial spread in the United States), then I think we could all agree that their approach “clearly hasn’t worked.” Also, the fact that Pence thinks that a woman cannot make decisions about her own body, but also trusts the American people to do the best for themselves regarding COVID-19 should be more than alarming. Let that one sink in. Honorable mention goes to the black house fly that joined Pence during his response to the social justice segment questions. Alanis Morrisette could not have written a more perfect lyric. 

Surprise punch of the night: Pence’s quip in response to Harris' comment that Trump lost the trade war with China. He retorted: “You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” This?!?! This from the administration that has ushered the words "misinformation," "disinformation," and "fake news" into America’s zeitgeist? The irony here is thicccccc. I simply did not know this man had so much audacity. Who needs fact checkers when the candidates will check themselves? 

Best round for Kamala

Social injustice. This is an area where the Trump-Pence ticket can’t touch Harris, but also one where many in the Democratic base take issue with her. Kamala came into the debate with a strong advantage and notable history as a seasoned prosecutor. She took this opportunity to put her record on the record, describing her work as a model of what the nation needs to do. As sis made clear last night she ain’t here to be lectured about our legal system and said as much without saying that she, not Trump, is in fact, “law and order.” Her record is certainly controversial, but ultimately works in her favor. She has insight on the effects of flaws in the police enforcement and judicial systems, and can use that wisdom to better instruct decisions going forward. She landed a few good hits reminding Pence that she sits on the senate judiciary committee and questioning him on why not one of the judicial appointments made by the Trump administration is Black. 

Worst round for Kamala

Social injustice. On the question of justice for Breonna Taylor, Harris succinctly responded that “justice was not served,” referenced her participation in peaceful protests, and even got in a talking point about decriminalizing cannabis (4-20-21 might be lit yall!). Pence tried to come for her talking points as bait for his base with his “looting and rioting” line, but still couldn't make it work for him. He also tried to come for her around whether the Democrats would try to “pack the Supreme Court” by adding new members in response to Amy Barret’s nomination. Harris again leaned in to her resume, which may not have landed well with the individuals affected by her past policies. 

Surprise punch of the night: Kamala’s refrain from meme-able quips. As the the first Black and South Asian woman to take the stage in a vice president debate, all eyes were on Kamala to see what version of herself she was going to bring to the table. I was waiting for the memes! Instead, Kamala served us with enough Claire Huxtable-esque shade without the stereotypes or tropes associated with Black women. She didn’t allow herself to get triggered or baited by Pence’s mansplaining or by being “the woman getting talked over by the man in the meeting.” By borrowing Biden's direct-to-camera style to address the American people, she focused less on sparring with Pence and more on getting her talking points across to the American people. She was the personification of “don’t come for me unless I send for you” I think Tupac would be proud. (And yes, I’m still rooting for everybody Black.)

Look, I doubt any reasonable voter was swayed by last nite’s debate. One could argue that neither candidate won because it’s unlikely they moved the needle too much on one side or the other. Hopefully each VP choice provided some insight, for the remaining undecided, into how they will be steering the United States through this clusterfuck and perfect storm of societal issues that millennials and Gen Z-ers will be left to sort out. 

Don’t forget that you can do your part by visiting Complex’s Pull Up & Vote site—where you can double-check your registration, register to vote if you haven’t, and request a mail-in ballot.

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