Election 2020

Can Harris Push Biden Across the Finish Line?

Her faceoff against Pence could be the first vice presidential debate to actually matter.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris waves as she arrives at a voter mobilization drive-in event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Las Vegas on Oct. 2.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris waves as she arrives at a voter mobilization drive-in event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Las Vegas on Oct. 2. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Since her anointment as Joe Biden’s vice presidential choice in August, Sen. Kamala Harris has barely made headlines. Perhaps that’s no surprise: In an election that has really been mostly about Donald Trump’s fitness for office, the president’s own No. 2, Mike Pence, has been all but invisible as well.

But even as Trump triumphantly left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday, tweeting that despite his COVID-19 diagnosis he felt “better than I did 20 years ago” thanks to his administration’s development of “really great drugs & knowledge,” the health of the 74-year-old president will also be on the ballot Nov. 3, as will Pence’s readiness to take over. And that means Harris is back in the spotlight too as the person who is a heartbeat away from the 77-year-old Biden, though he has tested negative for the virus so far.

Early indications are that COVID-19 will be center stage during Wednesday’s vice presidential debate as it has been all week, especially after Trump announced Tuesday he won’t negotiate further on another economic relief plan until the election is over. Harris will focus much of her attention on Pence’s alleged failures as head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, according to a source close to the campaign. Indeed, the debate already appeared to get underway on Tuesday, as the two camps traded barbs about Harris’s demand for a plexiglass divider between them. After Pence spokesperson Katie Miller told Politico, “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” Harris spokesperson Sabrina Singh tweeted back: “Interesting that @VPComDir Katie Miller mocks our wanting a plexiglass barrier on the debate stage, when her own boss is supposedly in charge of the COVID-19 task force and should be advocating for this too.” 

“It could be the first VP debate ever to matter,” said Matt Bennett of the Third Way, a Washington-based think tank. “The scrutiny on Pence in particular will be intense. Not just because Trump is sick but because he [Pence] is the ostensible chair of the coronavirus task force and that is the only issue that matters at the moment. Harris is a skilled advocate, and she will be relentless in prosecuting that case.”

“That’s where the election is,” said Elaine Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution and a former senior aide to Vice President Al Gore. “That’s their biggest vulnerability. That’s what is going to cause Trump to lose. And while I think Pence is a much more decent human being than Trump, he’s in a classic bind. You have to be completely loyal to the president. He’s going to have to defend the president on COVID, a pretty difficult thing to do.” 

Pence’s influence on Trump administration policy had always been unclear. But that ended in February, when the president put him in charge of the U.S. pandemic response and on camera almost every day. Since then he and the administration have been often criticized, including by Pence’s own former homeland security advisor, Olivia Troye, who accused the White House of missing months to slow the spread of the virus even as she said she organized every meeting of the coronavirus task force between February and July. Troye, who now says she’s voting for Biden, focused most of her criticism on Trump himself—but that won’t help Pence much when he’s forced to defend the president’s policies in the debate. (Troye herself told the Washington Post in September that Pence “was in an impossible situation with the president.”)

According to FP Analytics’s COVID-19 Global Response Index, the United States continues to rank among the worst countries (32nd of 36) in terms of per capita deaths and cases, among other factors indicating a laggard response.

Vice presidential debates typically mean next to nothing in presidential elections. Even when some candidates have scored well against their opponents, as Mike Dukakis’s pick, Lloyd Bentsen, did against George H.W. Bush’s choice, Dan Quayle, in 1988—when Bentsen famously humiliated the Republican candidate by saying he was “no Jack Kennedy”—their ticket lost in the end. But Wednesday night’s contest between Harris and Pence will highlight in much greater relief the two candidates’ suitability for the top office as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. 

And that has a great deal to do with the ages of both Biden and Trump, some analysts said. “The VPs never play big roles in campaigns. They do what they’re told,” Kamarck said. “Except that these two guys are old and the president is sick. Forget COVID—you just have to look at the guy to know he’s a walking heart attack. That will change the status of the VP candidates somewhat.”

Something similar happened in 2008, she noted, when Republican John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin backfired in large part because of doubts about his age and health. “In 1988, Quayle was really not thought to be up to the job, but Bush was a very healthy 63-year-old, so it didn’t matter that much. Palin also showed herself to be not up to the job, but McCain was 72 and had a history of cancer, so when Palin fell apart, it became a big story. This time there’s a lot riding on Pence.”

Even so, the Trump campaign and the president himself sought to portray his infection as a kind of triumph, suggesting that Trump was now in a better position to handle the pandemic because he had suffered COVID-19 and Biden had not. The president appeared to be using his swift return as evidence that the nation, like him, could quickly overcome the pandemic that has put his presidency in extreme jeopardy, with Biden leading in all major polls. Though the virus has now infected some 7.7 million people in the United States, killed more than 215,000, and few people have enjoyed the immediate and intensive care he received at Walter Reed, Trump said: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

On Monday, Trump also tweeted a video in which he said, “I knew there’s danger to it. But I had to do it. I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk. … But that’s OK. And now I’m better. And maybe I’m immune, I don’t know.”

Biden, who until then had reined in his criticisms of Trump while the president was in the hospital, responded: “I hope no one walks away with the message thinking that it is not a problem. It’s a serious problem. It’s an international pandemic, and we have … 20 percent of the deaths” in the world.

Harris’s history-making debut in August as the first Black and South Asian American woman to be selected as a vice presidential running mate was swiftly eclipsed by the broad realization that in fact she didn’t appear to add much to the ticket, especially since her record as a tough prosecutor in California (a firm blue state) appeared to flatten her appeal at a time of racial unrest and widespread anger at police tactics.

But now, for the first time since Trump was diagnosed last week, his handling of the pandemic will be front and center. And Harris will have to make the case that the president’s own infection is evidence that his response to the epidemic has been irresponsible.

Though Trump returned to the White House on Monday, his own doctor warned that he may not be “out of the woods yet.“ Trump hasn’t yet cleared the 10-day-or-so window when some COVID-19 patients have worsened in their symptoms.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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