The V.P. Debate – The New York Times

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Mike Pence and Kamala Harris are both skilled debaters. And their debate last night was far easier to watch than last week’s presidential debate.

But there was also a problem with the vice-presidential debate: Pence repeatedly made statements that were either misleading or untrue.

Rather than laying out his honest disagreements with Harris and Joe Biden — be they on tax policy, abortion, policing, immigration, the environment, or any number of other issues — Pence misrepresented the Trump administration’s record and Biden’s.

To be clear, both Pence and Harris also engaged in mild overstatement and rhetorical flourishes at times. That’s normal in politics. Harris, for example, exaggerated the job losses that President Trump’s trade war with China has caused. But Pence was far more dishonest. At several points, he seemed to want to run on a record that didn’t exist.

Here’s a partial list:

The most disappointing aspect of Pence’s performance is that he has deep disagreements with Harris and Biden that don’t depend on distortions. It’s entirely possible to make a fact-based case against higher taxes on the rich; or widely available abortions; or high levels of immigration; or new restrictions on police.

But that is not what Pence did.

A strong moment for each candidate: Harris’s opening remarks, taking the administration to task for the terrible toll of the coronavirus on the U.S.; Pence’s celebrating the Trump administration’s turn to a more hawkish approach to China, which has since become a bipartisan consensus.

Speaking time: Despite the vice president’s repeated interruptions, the two debaters spoke for nearly identical amounts of time over all: almost 36 minutes and 30 seconds.

Questions unanswered: Harris refused to answer Pence’s direct question about whether Democrats would expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court. Pence didn’t answer when the moderator asked him why America’s pandemic death toll is disproportionate to its population and what he would do if Trump refused to accept the election results.

Post-debate instant polls: 59 percent thought Harris won, 38 percent thought Pence won, CNN’s poll found.

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Holding an in-person debate during a pandemic creates risks, no matter how many precautions the debate’s organizers take. And the precautions for last night’s debate were pretty weak, as experts told my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli.

But American history offers an alternative to in-person debates — from the first year of televised presidential debates, no less. As Frank Donatelli, a former aide to Ronald Reagan, writes in RealClearPolitics:

On Oct. 13, 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John Kennedy debated for a third time, this time a continent apart. Nixon was in a Los Angeles studio, Kennedy was in an identical studio in New York, and a panel of four questioners and moderator Jack Shadel of ABC were in a third location in Los Angeles.

This remote format has some advantages, Donatelli noted. There is no audience to interrupt. The candidates can’t engage in stunts, like walking over to their opponent. And the debate moderator can control the microphones if one candidate keeps interrupting the other.

Donatelli wrote his article in May, even before the coronavirus infected Trump and parts of his inner circle. Donatelli’s conclusion: “Let the virtual debates of 2020 begin.”

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