It was distressing to hear both candidates dodge a question about what they would do if the president became incapacitated while in office. Harris flatly ignored the question and instead told viewers about her personal background. If elected, Biden would be the oldest president in U.S. history. This deserved an answer. And it was just one of several questions Harris dodged.
Here, I’m thinking about questions of her past support for the Green New Deal (she was a co-sponsor), an inconvenient position that Harris would just as soon forget (for now, at least). After providing an unsatisfying answer, she pivoted to accusing the Trump administration of not believing in science. Harris also acted as if Biden’s positions on fracking and raising taxes only on Americans making $400k a year have always been clear and consistent. They have not. And asked about the U.S.’s “fundamental relationship” with China, she pivoted to talking about Trump’s “weird obsession” with denying Obama-Biden accomplishments.
But Harris’s most egregious attempt to duck a question came not in response to one asked by moderator Susan Page, but rather a question asked by Mike Pence on whether a Biden-Harris administration would try to pack the Supreme Court. Biden dodged this same question during the first presidential debate (in fact, according to Americans for Tax Reform, Biden and Harris have dodged the question 10 times). The public has a right to know about something of this magnitude, just as Trump and Pence should be clear about accepting the results of the election and committing to a peaceful transfer of power.
While Pence and Harris both ducked and parried their share of debate questions (let’s think of these as “little white lies”), this particular evasion showed Harris shamelessly refusing to give us a straight answer on a huge question.
She went so far as to attempt to completely reframe our understanding of the term “court packing,” by arguing that the Republican Party is packing the courts with white judges. The racial breakdown of Trump appointees might be a legitimate concern, but it has nothing to do with what we all think of when we hear the term “court-packing.” This was almost as weird a transition as when, while talking about Trump downplaying COVID-19 warnings, Harris asked, “How calm were you when you were panicked about where you would get your next roll of toilet paper?" Pivoting from the question that was asked to the one you’d like to answer can work, but not if you don’t answer the actual question.
For all that, I suspect Harris probably won the debate, if for no other reason than the fact that Pence was playing defense most of the night. Let’s be honest, the coronavirus is not an issue that Mike Pence is going to win a debate on, no matter how brilliant or adept a debater he may be. And the first half-hour or so of the debate was focused on that topic. Pence tried to bring up topics like court-packing and ISIS and bin Laden, but the moderator’s questions were tough terrain. At one point, Pence managed to pivot the discussion to energy and fracking—topics he could win on. Page then congratulated him on helping her segue to the next topic, climate change… which I’m sure is just what he wanted to talk about.
Ultimately, I’m not sure we learned much more from the running mates debate than we did from the principals’. Instead of interrupting, they ducked and dodged. They violated the time rules more gently, but they violated them just the same. And they both complained. "Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking,” Harris must have said a million times. To which Pence responded, "If I may finish, Senator."
So why am I being so critical of Harris? Trump and Pence are frequently, and appropriately, dinged for their lies and obfuscation. Sadly, it often seems like nobody cares when we point it out, but this should not cause us to lower our standards. Politicians must be held accountable, particularly when it comes to answering questions about things like succession and packing the Supreme Court.
If the Democrats want to run as the antidote to Trump, they can start by telling us the truth—and answering some basic questions. Tonight, Harris failed to do that.