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Pence-Harris VP debate foreshadows fight over U.S. Supreme Court

Vice-presidential debates are notorious for their inability to foreshadow election outcomes. Yet they can still be instructive, and last night's contest between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence gave hints about the upcoming battle over the Supreme Court.

Candidates argued over issues related to Supreme Court, including abortion, health care

People watch the debate between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris outside a tavern in San Diego, Calif., on Wednesday. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Vice-presidential debates are notorious for their relative uselessness in foreshadowing election outcomes.

Last night's contest between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence was no different (the biggest buzz of the evening may have been generated by an actual fly). Yet these debates can be instructive.

This one revealed the storylines of an upcoming event with potentially history-shaping consequences for the United States: a battle over a Supreme Court seat.

The confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett are scheduled to start next Monday and the outcome could influence American politics for decades to come.

The vice-presidential debate provided four clues about the parties' battle plans — they involve abortion, health care, accusations of religious bigotry and the overhaul of institutions.

A relatively calm debate

These points emerged on a night in which American politics, for approximately 90 minutes, bore a reasonable approximation to normalcy.

A liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican laid out clear and contrasting political ideologies and managed to remain civil — or, at the very least, not to call each other "clown," insult close relatives, equivocate about white supremacy or implore the other to "shut up."

In other words, it was not Donald Trump debating Joe Biden.

WATCH | Highlights from Harris-Pence debate:

Pence-Harris face off in only VP debate

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2 months agoVideo
7:52
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris faced off in the only vice-presidential debate, 12-feet apart and separated by plexiglass barriers. 7:52

Pence congratulated Harris on the historic nature of her nomination, as the first Black woman on a major-party ticket. He also thanked her for sending her best wishes for the president's recovery from COVID-19.

The kumbaya session ended there. 

Pence later muscled in on some of Harris's speaking time, and when she said she'd doubt the safety of a COVID vaccine promoted by Trump, he called her statement "unconscionable."

Harris questioned why the president hadn't released his tax records and wondered who he might owe money to.

Democratic plan: Talk health care, abortion

The exchange about the Supreme Court came later, and it highlighted how Democrats see an advantage on health care and intend to raise it in Coney Barrett's hearings.

One of the biggest upcoming cases to be heard by the high court involves a White House-backed challenge against the Obamacare law, which is increasingly popular

It so happens that Harris will participate in Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings. 

Judge Amy Coney Barrett speaks after U.S. President Donald Trump announced that she will be his nominee to the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden at the White House on Sept. 26. ( Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, she stared into the television camera, spoke directly to viewers at home and delivered a message that will surely be repeated at those hearings.

"If you have a pre-existing condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they're coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they're coming for you," Harris said.

Pence replied: "That's nonsense." 

He said he and Trump have a plan to protect pre-existing conditions. It's not clear what their plan is, after four years in government. The moderator asked for details and Pence never provided any.

A second revelatory exchange involved abortion.

WATCH | CBC panel analyzes Harris-Pence debate:

The impact of the Pence-Harris debate | U.S. Politics Panel

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2 months agoVideo
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A panel of U.S. politics experts breaks down what happened during the vice-presidential debate between Vice-President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris and the impact it could have on November’s election. 9:56

If the next court appointment results in the overturning of the landmark Roe vs. Wade case, it's not something Republicans are keen to discuss right now, with the election and confirmation both still pending.

Moderator Susan Page asked Pence, the former Indiana governor, what he would want if Roe vs. Wade were overturned. 

"Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?"

Public-opinion polling might explain Republican reluctance to answer that question: Americans strongly oppose the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.

Pence avoided linking abortion to the court fight. "I would never presume how Judge Amy Coney Barrett would rule," he replied, while noting that he's personally pro-life. 

Republican focus: Alleged bigotry, court-packing

Democrats are tiptoeing around their own controversial issue. That's whether they might be planning a radical overhaul of the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Constitution sets no limit on the number of judges, and there's a growing desire on the left to pack the court if Democrats gain power.

LISTEN: Analysis of the lone Pence-Harris debate:

Last night, Vice-Presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris faced off in their one and only debate of the 2020 campaign. The debate comes less than a week after Donald Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus, and in a race between the two oldest presidential candidates in US history. Today, CBC Washington Correspondent Katie Simpson recaps the unusually significant VP debate. 21:34

While Biden has said he opposes such a move, numerous Democrats are fuming at what they see as an anti-democratic stranglehold on American institutions by the Republican Party, which has almost never won the popular vote in a presidential election since the 1980s.

They argue the current political system favours smaller, whiter states — and many not only want Senate seats for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, but also want the next Democratic president to add new court justices.

Democrat dodges question on court size 

Pence asked his opponent at least four times on Wednesday: Will you pack the court if you win this election?

Harris repeatedly dodged the question.

Later, after her non-answers, Pence said, "If you haven't figured it out yet, the straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election."

U.S. election race still trending Biden's way after VP debate, expert says

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2 months agoVideo
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Both Kamala Harris and Mike Pence did quite well in the U.S. vice-presidential debate, says Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution, and that means the trajectory of the presidential race is unlikely to change because of it. 6:34

Finally, the debate illustrated something that should be abundantly clear to Democrats by now: any attacks on Coney Barrett's religious faith will be used against them.

Republicans have repeatedly called attention to alleged examples of religious bigotry in news headlines — social media posts by little-known, unelected Democrats and a three-year-old comment by a prominent elected one.

Pence listed some Democrats who had commented on Coney Barrett's faith, and said he hoped this nominee might be treated better than Brett Kavanaugh was at his hearings two years ago.

There were signs the attacks on Kavanaugh enraged and energized Republican voters in advance of the 2018 congressional midterms.

There is ongoing debate, however, about whether it actually had an effect at the polls. Republicans managed to win two new Senate seats weeks after the Kavanaugh hearings, but lost the House of Representatives.

A trip to 'Normal Politics Land'

It's unlikely anyone will be pondering the electoral impact, years from now, of this debate. 

A CNN panel of voters had an equal number calling Harris and Pence the winner — four each. While a larger survey gave Harris the edge, past VP debates moved few votes. 

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow did, however, hail one achievement of this relatively uneventful affair, following the jaw-dropping spectacle of the presidential debate in late September. 

"It was like a visit to Normal Politics Land," she said.

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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