The vice presidential debate was a tense affair.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 14 minutes.
We’re going deep on the first and only vice presidential debate. Plus, a poll!
Yesterday, in the Quick hits section, I wrote that “President Trump’s top immigration advisor Stephen Miller is also quarantining after he and his wife tested positive.” In fact, Miller’s wife tested positive for the virus in May, not this week as the quick hit suggested. Also worth noting: a Tangle editor added this part of the sentence, so I’m throwing them under the bus. As President Trump once quipped: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
There have been 17 Tangle corrections in its 59-week existence, and the last correction was on October 5th. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and plan to stop counting when the number becomes embarrassing (or when it’s not my fault).
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- The Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the second debate between Trump and Biden would be virtual “in the form of a town meeting” where candidates would participate from remote locations. President Trump responded to the news by saying he would not participate, but instead, hold a rally.
- Vulnerable Republicans are beginning to distance themselves from President Donald Trump. Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, in a tight Senate race, refused to say if she was proud of supporting Trump. In Maine, Democrats are buying “Collins-Trump” signs to tie Republican Sen. Susan Collins, also in a close race, to the president. Trump’s allies are insisting Republicans hold firm for the final stretch.
- Unemployment claims remained historically high last week, with more than 840,000 Americans filing for jobless benefits, according to the Labor Department.
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are in talks to bail out the airline industry, according to The Wall Street Journal. Discussions about a second COVID-19 relief package have largely broken down, but the two sides are now trying to push for individual relief bills.
- Facebook said yesterday it will block all political ads on its platform after the polls close on November 3rd.
What D.C. is talking about.
The Mike Pence vs. Kamala Harris debate. Last night, the vice president and vice presidential candidate sat down for the only VP debate of this election. The 90-minute affair started off with conversations about COVID-19 and the White House response, touched on Joe Biden’s economic plan, abortion, differences in foreign policy regarding China, Breonna Taylor, how both politicians viewed the open Supreme Court seat and ended with a question about unity from an 8th grader.
Unlike the first presidential debate, this one featured minutes of speaking without interruption by either candidate and also some cordial praise from yesteryear. Pence acknowledged the historic nature of Harris’s nomination, which she responded to with a friendly smile and thanks. Susan Page, the debate moderator, was criticized for letting both candidates speak over her and past their time throughout the night. She also took some lumps for not forcing candidates to answer the questions that were asked, as each frequently responded to previous comments or changed the subject entirely during their responses.
“Over 90 minutes Wednesday night, debate moderator and USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page posed a series of probing and important queries to Pence and Harris — on the health of their septuagenarian running mates, on court-packing, on a peaceful transition of power,” Ashley Parker reported in The Washington Post. “The public, however, is still waiting on answers. Both candidates ducked, bobbed and wove past questions they didn’t want to answer, segueing into their preplanned talking points and attacks and largely ignoring Page, as well as her best efforts to enforce time limits.”
Perhaps the most talked about moment was also the least important: when a rogue fly planted itself on Mike Pence’s white hair and miraculously stayed there for minutes. Many on the right interpreted the buzz about the fly (see what I did there?) as an indictment on Harris’s night, proof the left would rather talk about a fly than her performance. But even in the Fox News post-debate spin room, the panelists could hardly go two minutes without bringing up the fly’s bizarre appearance. It was a long moment of levity in an otherwise serious and tense affair.
What the left is saying.
The left hammered Pence for evasiveness, for speaking past his time repeatedly and for defending the indefensible. But very few seemed blown away by Harris’s performance, which was highly anticipated and much-hyped before the debate.
The Los Angeles Times, the paper of record in Harris’s home state, published an editorial that criticized both candidates for dodging questions but seemed to give a nod to Harris for focusing on what matters most. “But Harris effectively made what was probably the most important argument on her agenda: that the Trump administration had badly mismanaged the coronavirus outbreak and misled the American people about its seriousness,” the board wrote. “Harris also effectively established that the Trump administration, while seeking a Supreme Court decision to have the Affordable Care Act struck down, has proposed no credible healthcare alternative for people not covered by an employer’s group health plan.”
In The New York Times, Frank Bruni said that Harris ousted Pence by simply “exhibiting a discernible pulse.”
“I think she had a very good night. She was too scripted, yes, and painfully evasive when it came to a question about whether Biden would or should pack the Supreme Court,” he wrote. “But she pushed back forcefully whenever Pence tried to paint her and Biden as radical leftists. She kept returning to the subject of Covid-19. She repeatedly reminded Americans of the Trump administration’s sustained effort to abolish Obamacare, at one point staring directly into the camera to explain what that means. ‘If you have a pre-existing condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they’re coming for you,’ she said. ‘If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.’”
“The main takeaway from this debate was that even Mike Pence cannot ably defend the president’s record or character,” Reyes wrote. “Pence did not explain to the audience why the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is so high, nor could he offer a coherent reason for why the Trump administration is challenging the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic. Instead we heard promises about a vaccine and tired talking points. The vice president frequently interrupted both Sen. Kamala Harris and moderator Susan Page, in a manner that was not only rude but also reminiscent of the president’s boorish debate appearance last week.”
What the right is saying.
The right was extremely pleased with Mike Pence’s performance, and many wondered aloud why they had not seen more of him on the campaign trail up to this point. One of those people was Gary Abernathy, who said campaign officials must be wondering if they can have Pence replace Trump for the next debate against Joe Biden.
“He did more in a few minutes Wednesday to rebut criticisms of how the virus has been handled than all other administration officials combined have managed to do in the past eight months,” Abernathy wrote. “After Harris mentioned Biden’s plan to combat the virus, Pence countered that it practically plagiarizes the Trump response. He also noted that the Obama-Biden response to the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 was disastrous, with 60 million infected; that Biden had criticized Trump for closing travel from China soon after the virus began to spread; and that the Trump administration trusts the American people to make good health decisions when presented with the facts. Whatever one’s opinions of those responses, Harris did little to rebut any of them, which scored points for Pence.”
“And so it went, topic after topic — the economy, foreign policy, health care, the environment, the Supreme Court, confidence in the election, even racial justice — Harris was prepared, passionate, sometimes eloquent and often effective. Pence, though, was masterful,” Abernathy said. “He not only ably defended Trump in ways that few, including Trump himself, have managed to do, but also pointed time and again to the hypocrisy and flip-flops of Biden and Harris on numerous issues. He was particularly effective asking Harris to stop casting doubt on the trustworthiness of a coronavirus vaccine. Throughout the night, Pence had Harris on her heels.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Pence “did as well as he could playing defense on the pandemic, especially with his accurate gibe that Joe Biden’s policy sounds like policy plagiarism.” But “Mr. Pence was most effective in pointing out how far left the Biden-Harris Democrats have moved,” the board wrote. “With Donald Trump’s personal antics sucking up all the media attention, voters haven’t heard much about Mr. Biden’s $2 trillion in spending over four years on the Green New Deal; the $4 trillion of tax increases that will reach into the working class through higher business and corporate rates; their goal of eliminating fossil fuels that would cost jobs and raise energy prices; and the Biden record on foreign policy that includes opposing the raid on Osama bin Laden.”
Dan McLaughlin said the debate had the “surreal air of normality,” but there was a clear winner. “Harris drew some blood early in the exchanges on the coronavirus, but otherwise, it went downhill fast for her,” McLaughlin said. “This was a very good debate for Mike Pence and did not reflect well on Harris. Watching Pence, it was easy to wish he was the one at the top of the ticket. I very much doubt many viewers felt the same way watching Harris… Once the debate moved out of the first section and into comfortable Republican ground — economic plans, national security, the courts — Pence was on his strongest turf. Harris ran away from Biden’s — and her own — statements and proposals repeatedly, which is consistent with the Biden-Harris campaign’s pattern of fleeing any discussion of what it actually intends to do if elected. She said Biden would repeal the Trump tax cuts, then backtracked hastily to deny that Biden would raise taxes on anyone making above $400,000 — both can’t be true.”
It was almost infuriating to be reminded what two seasoned politicians look like on stage. Over the years, there have been so many “hot takes” about “why we got Trump” — and there are many answers to that question. But one of them, undoubtedly, is the decades of performances like the two we saw last night. Each candidate, in their own way, was simply answering the questions they wanted to answer and talking about the things they wanted to talk about. This was not a debate so much as it was a series of important questions, many ignored, followed by scripted monologues that — nine times out of 10 — amounted to non-answers. This kind of evasiveness is why Congress and politicians more generally have such a low standing amongst the citizens they work for.
Mike Pence had a tough — if not impossible — job. He’s the head of the coronavirus task force, a position he took over six months ago. And six months later, he was sitting 12 feet from his opponent, separated by plexiglass windows, with the president isolating in the White House, infected with the virus (along with now more than 30 other people in the White House’s inner circle), 210,000 Americans dead of the virus, 28 million more on unemployment benefits and with most of us still wearing masks when we go into public places, and/or unable to send our kids to school. The stark reality of the failures of the response he has overseen was impossible to ignore.
Given all that, his performance was relatively strong. Harris was asked directly what she would do differently than Trump on COVID-19 going forward, and there wasn’t much in the way of contrast — but what’s already happened is where she rightly focused. Pence tried to land a burn about the Biden campaign plagiarizing their plan (a reference to Biden’s history of plagiarizing speeches but something many Americans probably don’t even remember). In a moment of clarity, though, Harris focused on what mattered: that Pence and Trump failed by nearly every available datapoint, including deaths when adjusted for population, that Trump is on tape admitting he hid the severity of the virus as far back as January, and that the virus is still spreading and upending our lives six months later.
The first and go-to defense from Pence on COVID-19 was his claim that Trump took unprecedented action by shutting down all travel from China. This is absurd. 40,000 people came in from China after Trump’s “ban,” which actually made exemptions for pretty much anyone with ties to family or work in America. Studies have shown most of the cases came in from Europe, anyway, where there were no restrictions on travel. Pence also claimed Biden called Trump “xenophobic” for the ban — this is also not true. The same day the ban was announced, Biden called Trump xenophobic in a speech. But it was not about China and it was unclear if he even knew about the policy being announced by Trump.
Once again, Harris refused to answer the question about whether she and Biden would pack the Supreme Court. This, too, was a cringeworthy moment. She tried to deliver a bizarre “history lesson” about Abe Lincoln that was almost entirely fabricated and included some made-up quotes. Harris and Biden’s continued avoidance of this question is one of the stupidest political plays I’ve seen in recent years. Biden would never pack the court — he is far too dedicated to a posture of norms and compromise. Democrats would never try to pack the court either, because they haven’t once shown the fire breathing burn-it-all-down attitude it’d require to attempt such a stunt.
The simple reason they won’t answer the question is that packing the court is the last of the threats Senate Democrats are holding onto as Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation unfolds, and they don’t want to upset the far left. It’s bad politics and bad optics and a bad decision — and Harris looked silly dodging it last night. The entire campaign looks worse than they would if they just conceded they’d never try it.
Speaking of dodges: the most important moment of the night came toward the end, when Susan Page asked Mike Pence what his role would be if Donald Trump refused to accept the results of the election. Instead of answering the question, instead of assuring Americans that there would be a peaceful transfer of power, Pence shamefully dodged again — insisting they would win and that it was Democrats that are still refusing to accept the results of the 2016 election.
Is it true that many liberals have rejected Trump as their president? Yes. Is it true that he was investigated for colluding with Russia in 2016? Yes. Is it true that he was impeached for asking a foreign leader to investigate Joe Biden? Yes. It’s also true that Hillary Clinton conceded on the night of the election, that Barack Obama set up a workable transition, and that Trump was sworn in without incident and Democrats in Congress even spent the first year or two trying to work with Republicans and Trump on legislation.
A vice president refusing to simply state that he would accept the results of an election is, simply put, the biggest story of the night. That it didn’t get more play is a sign of how far Trump has moved the goalposts.
Ultimately, if this debate mattered much to voters, I think Pence would have come out on top. He offered the best defense of Trump’s record I’ve seen in four years, far better than Trump or other Republicans have made, and Harris faced almost the opposite effect Biden did: she was so hyped and expectations were so high about how she’d tear Pence to pieces that when she didn’t completely dominate, it almost felt like a loss. Regardless, there were so few questions actually answered and so much dodging that I sincerely doubt this changes a single vote, though I’d love to hear from you if I’m wrong.
The vice president is better at defending Donald Trump’s record than Donald Trump or any other Republican I’ve seen in Congress. He knew the issues, he was fully prepared, and he hit several home runs on foreign policy and the contradictions of the Biden-Harris ticket and platform. Pence’s best moment came when he ran down the list of foreign policy achievements for Trump: moving the embassy in Israel, something Biden promised but never did. Demanding more money and defense from NATO allies, beating back ISIS, killing al-Baghdadi, trying to clean up the Obama administration’s release of frozen assets to Iran (“the leading state sponsor of terrorism”). All of this landed, and all Harris could muster was how Joe Biden believed in building relationships. Biden has been in the Senate for decades and served as a vice president — and actually has a pretty strong foreign policy record in many respects, but Harris seemed unable to conjure any of that up.
He also took Harris to task for her own record as a prosecutor. Pence said when she left office in San Francisco, “African-Americans were 19 times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics.” He also noted that she “increased the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks in California.” Those numbers refer to arrests, not prosecutions, but they still matter. Harris hasn’t had to defend her record much since being selected as VP, and her response — that she helped institute body cameras and training on implicit bias in California — did little to quell the sting of the outcomes when she was in charge, and totally ignored how she actively fought some reforms.
Finally, Pence was wise to point out contradictions and sloppy flip-flopping from Biden and Harris. He noted that Harris co-sponsored The Green New Deal while now distancing herself from it (even as it sits on Biden’s website). He fibbed on the fracking ban (Biden has called for a ban on fracking on federal land, not all fracking) but was right to note that Harris has called for a ban on all fracking. It’s also true that Biden has called for reversing Trump’s tax cut, which did in fact net the average family of four about $2,000 extra dollars a year. Biden has suggested repealing parts of that tax law, which would require Congress, but Harris didn’t use that defense. Instead she insisted he would only raise taxes on people making more than $400,000 a year, which doesn’t square with Biden’s promise last week to repeal the law.
Besides COVID-19, which I’ve already addressed, by far Harris’s strongest moment was when the conversation turned to health care. On July 19th, nearly three months ago, Trump was on Chris Wallace’s show and once again promised a Republican health care bill would be released in two weeks. He has made this promise repeatedly since 2016, and it has never come true. At the same time, he is fighting to end the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court with no replacement available. This is an issue that matters for Americans, and Harris effectively called it out, addressing viewers at home and asking how they felt about the threat they faced.
Harris was also effective in making the conversation about Donald Trump. She accurately noted that he’s $400 million in debt and we don’t know who he owes this money to — a point she made with the appropriate level of urgency. She also explained her shock at finding out he had only paid $750 in taxes and reminded viewers how the Trump administration got rid of a pandemic response team which had been created largely as a result of the same Swine Flu outbreak Pence criticized Biden for, as well as the Ebola outbreak, and did it long before COVID.
I also thought one of the more important moments came in the conversation about Breonna Taylor. Harris used the moment to highlight other tragic deaths from police violence, including George Floyd’s, and argued that “bad cops are bad for good cops,” even taking a moment to say she and Biden are “never going to condone violence” in the streets in response to these deaths. Compare that to Pence, whose response felt pretty trite in comparison, given the moment, when he sent his “sympathies” to Taylor’s family but said he trusted the justice system. She at least acknowledged there needed to be change.
Aside from his absolute refusal to answer the questions being asked, Pence spread a number of falsehoods. He outright lied about the Amy Coney Barrett ceremony, which many believe was the source of the White House COVID-19 outbreak. Yes, part of it was outdoors, but there was also an indoor reception. And nearly every guest attending it ignored the recommendations for masks and social distancing the CDC advises.
He lied about abortion, saying Biden and Harris “support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.” They do not. Biden and Harris support Roe v. Wade, which says states can prohibit abortion after fetal viability (when a fetus can live unaided outside the womb). There was a controversy last year when Democrats proposed a law in Virginia to make it easier for women to access late-stage abortions if their health was in danger, but Republicans have misconstrued that proposal — which neither Biden nor Harris have come out in support of — into something else.
Finally, Pence trying to hammer the Obama administration for H1N1 Swine Flu was also embarrassing. He claimed “2 million would have died” if H1N1 was as deadly as coronavirus, a figure it appears he pulled out of thin air with some napkin math related to COVID-19. Regardless, it’s kind of like saying “10 million people would have died if the common cold was as deadly as COVID-19! Why didn’t Obama stop the common cold?” Yes, it’s true that an estimated 60 million people got H1N1. It’s also true only 12,000 died, that we had a better understanding of the flu than we yet do of COVID-19, and that the Obama administration left behind a pandemic response playbook that has been largely ignored in the last six months.
Last night reminded me why Harris didn’t make it very far in the 2020 election. Her views are malleable, her record is shoddy, and she rarely gives a straight answer on things that matter. Along the way, Harris got out over her skis and lied about things it was not necessary to lie about.
Harris misled viewers about several economic indicators in the way politicians love to do. She said 1 in 5 businesses closed because of COVID-19. That’s a lie. 1 in 5 small businesses had closed temporarily according to one survey of small businesses from June. And in July, the same survey found 86% of small businesses were fully or partially open. The numbers are likely far better than that now. She also lied when she claimed the U.S. manufacturing sector is in a recession. The sector has been growing for months and before the pandemic crash it was doing very well under the Trump administration.
She said the president called COVID-19 a hoax, which is also not true. The president compared Democrats’ criticism of his response to COVID-19 to “the impeachment hoax.” He never called COVID-19 a hoax.
On the whole, Harris ran into the most trouble when she actually had to defend her own record as opposed to comparing Biden and Trump. She did support banning fracking when she was a presidential candidate. She did support The Green New Deal. It’s also true she didn’t vote for the USMCA, a deal a lot of American workers supported, and she seemed unprepared to explain why. She also had very little defense for her record as a District Attorney in San Francisco, and seemed unprepared for that attack line even after seeing it from Tulsi Gabbard during the Democratic primary.
One thing I noticed: We’ve had two debates now and not once has immigration come up. In 2016, this was maybe the biggest issue of the election. With 26 days to go to election day, it’s been basically nonexistent. Pretty stunning to me.
- 36:27. The time, in minutes and seconds, that Mike Pence spoke during the debate last night.
- 36:24. The time, in minutes and seconds, that Kamala Harris spoke during the debate last night.
- 59-38. The percentage of voters who said Harris won last night’s debate, according to a rapid survey of 609 voters conducted by CNN.
- 62%. The percentage of Democrats who plan to vote before election day.
- 47%. The percentage of Independents who plan to vote before election day.
- 28%. The percentage of Republicans who plan to vote before election day.
- 8%. The percentage of registered voters who say the first presidential debate made them feel optimistic.
- 77%. The percentage of registered voters who say the first presidential debate made them feel annoyed.
- 27. The number of times “China” was mentioned during last night’s debate.
- 15. The number of times the “Green New Deal” was mentioned during last night’s debate.
- 4. The number of times “Russia” was mentioned during last night’s debate.
- 1. The number of times “impeachment” was said during last night’s debate.
- 0. The number of times the word “immigration” or “immigrant” was said during last night’s debate.
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A Minnesota man who was trapped under a fallen tree for four days was discovered and saved. Jonathan Ceplecha, 59, was rescued after he was cutting down trees in his backyard and one came down on top of him. "In a split second due to a freak accident, both of his legs were suddenly pinned down under an immovable log and his upper torso was now semi-twisted as he sat upright on the ground," his son wrote. "His legs were broken instantly and he was in enormous pain but, with no phone on him and because he lives alone, there was nobody to hear or see him." Ceplecha survived by eating plants, insects and drinking sweat and rainwater. Family members became worried after not hearing from him for several days and he was discovered by his ex-wife who came to his property looking for him. The story, from early September, just came onto my radar this morning.