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Pence, Harris spar on COVID-19, trade, highlighting Detroit, auto jobs

Vice President Mike Pence referenced efforts to get supplies to Detroit at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic at Wednesday’s debate as he clashed with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris over how to handle the virus and manufacturing jobs.

Harris, the Democrat from California who is Joe Biden’s running mate, opened the vice presidential debate by saying President Donald Trump’s efforts to combat COVID-19 were “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

“Frankly, this administration has forfeited the right to re-election,” Harris said at one point.

Vice President Mike Pence listens as Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., makes a point during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP)

Pence countered by emphasizing the administration’s efforts to suspend travel from China, deliver medical supplies to states and push for a vaccine. He predicted the country would have “tens of millions of doses” of vaccine before the end of year.

“We surged resources to New Jersey, New York, New Orleans and Detroit,” the Republican from Indiana said about the height of the pandemic.

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As of Wednesday, the United States had confirmed 7.5 million cases with more than 211,000 deaths linked to the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University. Michigan, which was among the states hit hardest early in the pandemic, had confirmed 130,842 cases and 6,847 deaths. The state reported its first cases on March 10, 211 days ago, but like others is still seeing the virus spread.

The virus peaked in Michigan in April with the state ranking among the top three states for deaths at that point and its largest city, Detroit, among the early hot spots. On April 5, Pence, the leader of the White House coronavirus task force, said the administration was going to ensure Michigan had “the resources, equipment and support that they need.”

In early April, Pence detailed conversations he had with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Pence said at the time that Duggan was “grateful” for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of instant testing kits that are now being used in the city.

But Whitmer and Duggan, Democrats who are supporting Biden’s campaign, have also criticized the administration’s response to COVID-19. Whitmer has called for a national strategy on testing and personal protective equipment and said in September that “the biggest enemy of the state right now is the misinformation that’s coming out of the head of state,” referring to Trump.

Wednesday’s debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City took place 27 days before the Nov. 3 election. It occurred less than a week after Trump revealed he had tested positive for the virus and as Michigan has experienced an increase in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. The Upper Peninsula has seen the largest jumps recently.

Michigan currently ranks 17th nationally for cases and 10th for deaths.

Harris said a Biden administration would work to expand testing and contact tracing to combat the virus. Pence said Biden’s plan sounded like what the Trump administration had done.

“It looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little something about,” the vice president said.

Clashing on trade policy

At another point in the debate, Harris highlighted Biden’s work during the Great Recession to rescue the auto industry.

“Joe Biden is responsible for saving America’s auto industry, and you voted against it,” Harris said, referring to the auto bailout. “So let’s set the record straight.”

Pence voted against an auto rescue package in 2008 as a member of the U.S. House. The measure died in the Senate. 

President Barack Obama forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and loaned them and their lending arms about $55 billion after President George W. Bush loaned them $25 billion near the end of 2008. Auto sales recovered during the Obama administration along with the economy that grew at a 2% rate — which Trump criticized as too slow during his 2016 campaign.

When Trump took office, auto sales already had grown for six consecutive years under Obama. Sales expanded for another year in 2017 to 17.55 million units before gradually declining in 2018 and 2019. But sales have remained above 17 million units for five consecutive years, including the first three years of the Trump presidency — a historic industry achievement. 

Pence criticized Harris for opposing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which Trump signed in January 2020 to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“Sen. Kamala Harris was one of only 10 members of the Senate to vote against the USMCA. It was a huge win for American auto workers,” Pence said. “But Senator, you said it didn’t go far enough on climate change. You put your radical environmental agenda ahead of American auto workers and American jobs.”

Under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, automakers have to produce cars with 75% of parts originating from the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty-free treatment. The requirement, referred to as “rules of origin,” is an increase from 62.5% under the North American Free Trade Agreement rules.

In January, General Motors said, “The agreement is vital to the success of the North American auto industry.”

Climate change disagreement

In light of record-setting wildfires and hurricanes, the debate’s moderator, Susan Page, asked Pence if he believes as many scientists have concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires “bigger hotter and more deadly.” Pence did not directly answer.

“The climate is changing. The issue is, what’s the cause, what do we do about it? President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to science,” Pence said.

He argued that Biden and Harris would impose the Green New Deal, which he said would crush American energy and “literally would crush American jobs.”

Harris, a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal in the Senate, said Moody’s, the Wall Street firm, said Biden’s economic plan would create 7 million more jobs than Trump’s and part of those would be created from the clean and renewable energy industry.

“We have seen a pattern with this administration which is they don’t believe in science and Joe’s plan is about saying we’re gonna deal with it but we’re also going to create jobs,” Harris said.

‘He didn’t do it’

Pence expressed sympathy for the family of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman who was shot dead by Louisville police in her apartment in March. But he condemned rioters who damaged businesses in Minneapolis and other cities during what were mostly peaceful protests.

“This presumption that you’ll hear consistently from Joe Biden that America is systemically racist. That as Joe Biden said, he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities,” Pence said. “That is a great insult to the men and women who served in law enforcement. I want everyone to know who puts on the uniform of law enforcement that President Trump and I stand with you.”

Harris responded by referring to the moment during last week’s presidential debate when Trump was asked if he would condemn white supremacists, said he was willing to, but then did not.

“And it wasn’t like he didn’t have a chance. He didn’t do it and then he doubled down,” Harris said. “And then he said, when pressed, ‘Stand back. Stand by.’ This was a part of a pattern of Donald Trump’s.”

The first presidential debate took place on Sept. 29 in Cleveland. During it, Trump and Biden frequently clashed and spoke over each other. The Republican incumbent repeatedly interrupted the former vice president with Biden asking Trump to “shut up” at one point.

The tense event drew public backlash. A Detroit News and WDIV poll of 600 likely Michigan voters the four day after the debate found that 41% of those surveyed thought neither candidate won. Another 35% said Biden came out on top, while 20% said Trump prevailed.

The poll, which had a 4 percentage point margin of error, found Biden to have a 9-point lead over Trump overall.

“He’s got a tough job to do tonight,” Aaron Kall, director of debates at the University of Michigan, said of Pence ahead of Wednesday’s debate.

Pence and Harris frequently spoke longer than the rules allowed on Wednesday, but didn’t interrupt each other as much as Trump and Biden did in their earlier debate.

The next presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami.

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