Yet their jarringly different answers illustrated just how utterly divided the two presidential campaigns — and, by extension, the rest of the country — have become.
“In the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?” asked moderator Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today.
“I don't believe so,” Harris said.
“I trust our justice system,” Pence said, moments later.
When police killed Taylor in March after ramming open the door to her home to serve a search warrant, she became one of the catalysts for the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer and that are ongoing to this day. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, has said he believed it was a break-in and fired a gun, injuring an officer. Police responded by firing about 20 rounds, hitting Taylor at least six times. No officer has been charged directly in her death.
In her response, Harris spoke about the need for police reform and the protests that have touched cities across the country. Pence spent much of his answer talking about looting and rioting — the right often equates protests for racial justice with scenes of violence as a way to discredit the message — and denying racism could be a systematic issue in the US or in police departments.
They were exactly the responses that were expected from both campaigns — the kind of answers one would find from opposing, screaming sides at protests and counterprotests that have erupted and exacerbated a growing schism in the country, fueled by a president who works to divide Americans as a way to distract from criticism of his administration.
“There’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd and justice will be served, but there is also no excuse for the rioting and looting,” Pence said.
Pence even brought along a business owner whose salon burned down during protests in Minneapolis as a guest to the debate.
“Just a few weeks ago, I stood at what used to be her salon. It was burned to the ground by rioters and looters,” Pence said.
He then denied issues of police violence disproportionately impacted Black and brown Americans.
“And this presumption that you hear from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist,” Pence said. “And as Joe Biden said, that he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities — is a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”
Harris said policing and criminal justice reform was needed across the country in order to “finally achieve that idea of equal justice under the law.”
Pence said his and President Donald Trump’s campaign has instead focused on public and financial support for law enforcement, offering a significantly different answer from the thousands of people who’ve taken to the street over the lack of prosecution of police officers in the killing of black people and who call for defunding the police.
The vice president then criticized what he claimed was Harris’s lack of support for a law enforcement bill, saying, “we don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and improving public safety and supporting our African American neighbors.”
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” said Harris, a career prosecutor who previously served as the attorney general of California.
“I'm the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide,” she added. “We're talking about an election in 27 days where last week the president of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists.”
“Not true,” Pence muttered.
During the first presidential debate, Trump was asked to condemn white supremacist groups and self-described militia groups. Instead, Trump called on the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s organization with a history of instigating violence, to “stand back and stand by.”
“It wasn’t like he didn’t have a chance,” said Harris on Wednesday, pointing out that many of the president’s public rebukes of white supremacists or extremist groups have been qualified. “He didn’t do it and then he doubled down.”
Harris called out the multiple incidents of racism by Trump that have defined his presidency, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” when he first announced his presidential campaign in 2015, to his travel ban on dominantly Muslim countries and saying there were good people “on both sides” after a fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
“This is why people dislike the media so much in this country,” Pence said. “He condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. And he has done so repeatedly. President Trump has Jewish grandchildren. His daughter and son-in-law are Jewish.”
Harris, who did not mention her own racial background during the discussion about Black Lives Matter and racial justice, is the first Black woman and Asian American to be nominated as vice president.