Election 2020

Harris, Pence Battle Over Foreign Policy

Vice presidential candidates return to America’s role in the world in a restrained debate.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence applaud after their debate at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence applaud after their debate at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

In an election that until now has been mostly defined by COVID-19 and domestic policy issues, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence spent a surprising amount of time Wednesday night battling over President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and America’s role in the world, as well as how Democratic challenger Joe Biden might perform as a global leader.

The two vice presidential candidates engaged in a notably sober discussion, moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page, about whether Trump or Biden would be the tougher president, who would do a better job taking on China and Iran, and who has the better approach to climate change.

Harris, a 55-year-old California Democrat who became Biden’s running mate in August, made history as the first Black woman to appear in a vice presidential debate. And though she appeared at times smug, pushing back against Pence’s interruptions to say, “I’m speaking,” Harris delivered an extended and coherent attack on Trump’s foreign policy, including his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she said the U.S. president trusts more than his own FBI director. She said Trump had betrayed American allies and made the country less safe.

 “You’ve got to be loyal to your friends,” she said. “What we’ve seen with Donald Trump is he’s betrayed our friends and [embraced] dictators around the world.” She also defended the Iran nuclear deal that Trump rejected, saying America is “less safe … because of Donald Trump’s unilateral approach to foreign policy.” 

Pence, 61, was predictably restrained given his sober reputation—especially in contrast to the mudslinging madhouse that was the first debate a little more than a week ago between Trump and Biden. He offered up a strong defense of Trump, saying he had defeated the Islamic State, killing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and had cowed Iran by assassinating its chief military strategist, Qassem Suleimani. He noted that both Harris and Biden had opposed that strike and that Biden, as vice president, had also argued against the 2011 mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

The two also engaged sharply over an issue that has been until now almost absent from the campaign: climate change. Pence sought to argue that carbon dioxide emissions were down in the United States despite its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, and he accused Harris and Biden several times of backing the left-wing Green New Deal that he described as economically ruinous. (Harris denied that Biden supports the progressive bill.) Harris accused the administration of ignoring all science about climate change, even removing it from the White House website. Biden has pledged to return to the Paris pact.

The two candidates fought as well over the U.S. approach to China, though both of them gingerly avoided Page’s question about whether Beijing was an adversary or competitor. Pence repeated the administration line that “China is to blame for the coronavirus, and President Trump is not happy about it,” and that he “has stood up to China and continues to stand strong.”

Harris contended that Trump’s trade war with China has failed and resulted only in a “loss of American lives, American jobs, and America’s standing.” She accused the administration of wastefully dropping all coordination efforts with Beijing on monitoring pandemics, and she said the trade war has resulted in the loss of more than 300,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs.  

But most of all Harris attacked Pence over his leadership of the White House task force on the coronavirus, saying, “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in our history.” Both avoided the issue of age: Trump is 74, and Biden would be 78 if inaugurated in January. No one mentioned what will likely end up as the biggest internet meme to come out of the debate: the fly that mysteriously landed in Pence’s hair late in the night.

Like Trump, Pence also avoided the question of whether the administration would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, telling Harris, “Your party has spent most of the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election.”

On that score, Trump himself preempted his own vice president earlier in the day. Overshadowing the debate were wild tweets from Trump overnight demanding the arrests of Biden, former President Barack Obama, and his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton over their alleged (and mostly debunked) role in concocting a Russian plot against Trump.

Indeed, since his release from Walter Reed Medical Center and his COVID-19 diagnosis, Trump has appeared increasingly erratic. On Tuesday he called off talks on an economic stimulus that could be the only thing to save his presidency, since he is losing badly in most polls. Then overnight he insisted the Attorney General William Barr start arresting his Democratic critics, beginning with Biden, over their roles in what he has alleged was a plot to launch a “coup” against him by trumping up Russian interference in the 2016 election. “DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS, THE BIGGEST OF ALL POLITICAL SCANDALS (IN HISTORY)!!! BIDEN, OBAMA AND CROOKED HILLARY LED THIS TREASONOUS PLOT!!! BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN – GOT CAUGHT!!!” Trump tweeted.

Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told Fox News that Trump had spent Monday morning, after his return to the White House, ordering the declassification of documents related to the FBI’s Russia probe. However, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee and special counsel Robert Mueller’s ’s team have both concluded that allegations about Democratic complicity with Russia against Trump remain unverified. In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham accompanying the new document release, even Trump’s director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, noted that the source was Russian intelligence and said that the U.S. intelligence community “does not know the accuracy” of the allegations “or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”

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

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