With plexiglass barriers on stage to help shield the participants from coronavirus droplets, pandemic response was a predictable focus of Wednesday night's vice presidential debate.
But while Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris were more civil with each other on a stage at the University of Utah than President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden were with each other last week in Cleveland, many of the key questions were left hanging.
Pence did not answer whether the American people deserve detailed information on Trump's medical records, though he did offer praise for White House doctors.
"The transparency that they practiced all along the way will continue. The American people have a right to know about the health and well-being of their president, and we'll continue to do that," Pence said in response to a question from moderator Susan Page of USA Today.
The problem is that Trump's doctors and other White House personnel have declined to answer some significant questions about the president's diagnosis since he first tested positive for coronavirus late last week — including whether he tested negative the day of the Sept. 29 presidential debate. They also won't specify whether he has tested negative as far back as Sept. 20.
Harris, a California Democrat who is Biden's running mate, broadened the question about transparency to ongoing questions about the president's personal finances, his reported $750 payment for income tax last year and the debts owed by the real estate and licensing business he still owns.
"I'm glad you asked about transparency, because it has to be across the board. Joe has been incredibly transparent over many, many years. The one thing we all know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He — he is honest. He is forthright. But Donald Trump, on the other hand," Harris said.
Pence defended the White House’s decision to flout public health guidelines when dozens of people gathered for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and multiple attendees, including Trump, subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.
Asked whether the administration set a good example, Pence said, “President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.”
Abortion and the courts
The question avoidance was not unique to the vice president. Harris followed the lead of Biden in avoiding an answer about whether she would support increasing the size of the Supreme Court. The Biden campaign has argued that is a hypothetical question.
Barrett's potential confirmation later this month would tip the court's balance in favor of conservatives, opening the door to the court striking down or weakening its landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.
Pence did not answer when asked whether he would encourage his home state of Indiana to outlaw abortion in all forms if that happened. Harris, likewise, would not say whether she would encourage California, where she previously served as attorney general, should allow unrestricted access to abortion.
"There's the issue of choice, and I will always fight for a woman's right to make a decision about her own body. It should be her decision and not that of Donald Trump and the vice president, Michael Pence," Harris said.
The Supreme Court takes center stage next week, with hearings set to begin Monday for Barrett in the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Harris is a member. Her team on the Biden campaign has said she will be in Washington for the hearings.
On health care policy, Pence said the Trump administration had a plan for improving the health care system that involved protecting insurance coverage for people with preexisting conditions.
But when asked to elaborate on what would happen if the Supreme Court agreed with the administration and struck down the 2010 health law that barred insurers from denying such coverage, Pence chose to talk more about the earlier question on abortion.
The theme of the vice president and the Democratic challenger answering the question they wanted to hear rather than the one asked recurred throughout, and it became pronounced again near the end of the 90-minute debate when both candidates were asked about accepting the results of the Nov. 3 election.
Harris took that question as an opportunity to echo Biden's answer call for everyone to get out and vote.
Pence made a rare debate reference to the consequential historical event that began 2020, before anyone could know that a global pandemic was coming — the impeachment of the president. Pence decried that as an attempt by Democrats to overturn the 2016 election. As for accepting the will of the voters in November?
"I think we're going to win this election," Pence said. "President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail-in voting that will create a massive opportunity for voter fraud."