"They're coming for you:" How Kamala Harris deftly prosecuted Donald Trump as a malicious predator at the VP debate

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr. License.

In the vice presidential debate last night, Mike Pence's performance was rightfully ranked in third place, after Kamala Harris, the winner, and the fly that spent a whole two minutes sitting on Mike Pence's head before flying away in boredom.

All kidding aside, it should not be lost on anyone that Mike Pence is an immeasurably better debater than his boss, but the trained former radio talk show host was not ready for how forceful, determined, and dogged Kamala Harris would be in prosecuting her case against Donald Trump. According to a CNN poll, only 38% of debate watchers thought Pence won the debate, compared to 59% who thought Harris won.

But Kamala Harris did something much more explicitly that the Biden-Harris campaign has only made mostly an implicit case for up until this point. Kamala Harris went after Donald Trump as a malicious actor preying on vulnerable Americans, not simply as an incompetent manager whose policies are failing. Although she did not make a case for malice on every single part of the Trump record, Harris threaded together a broad enough swatch of the debate to this theme to make the case that malice is at the core of who Donald Trump is.

The debate started with a review of the Trump administration's catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic, and Harris quickly and effectively laid the blame for 210,000+ dead Americans at the feet of Donald Trump and the head of the White House task force on the coronavirus, Mike Pence. Harris pointed out that Trump told a journalist - but not Americans - that he knew how contagious, deadly, and dangerous this virus was back in January. Keeping the truth from Americans kept Americans from being able to take action and protect their loved ones.

Pence attempted to make a case for the administration's response, focused primarily on its travel ban on China, but it was quickly decimated when Harris hit Pence over the fact that the Trump administration had dismantled a pandemic task force it inherited from Barack Obama, and withdrew an American team tasked with tracking outbreaks from China.

Democrats are running on health care, and Kamala Harris wasted no time slaying Pence when it came to its attempts to do away with critical provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Not only did Kamala Harris stay on message and frame a question about the vacancy on the Supreme Court in terms of the Trump administration's court challenge against the whole of the Affordable Care Act, it was during this section of the debate that Kamala Harris let loose the line that will define this debate in the history books: they're coming for you.

They're coming for you if you've got a pre-existing condition like heart disease, diabetes, or breast cancer. They're coming for you if you love someone with a pre-existing health condition. They're coming for you if you are an young adult covered under your parent's health insurance plan.

Pence's camp surely expected Harris to talk about health care and attack Trump for wanting to take protections away, but Pence was wholly unprepared for Harris to frame the discussion in a way that explicitly identifies the Trump administration as an premeditated predator and the American people as prey, rather than sticking with talking about the protections going away as an effect of a court challenge.

There is a distinct stylistic - and substantive - difference between saying "they're challenging it in court, which will in turn take your health care protections away" and saying "they want to take your health care away, so they're challenging it in court." The latter framing is much sharper, much more aggressive, and much more urgent. Kamala Harris, in saying "they're coming for you", made a case that the Republican attack against the Affordable Care Act is not simply negligent but malicious.

This stuck. This worked. And Mike Pence knew it. It's why he tried to interject, slow Harris down, and vigorously shake his head. Well, vigorously for Mike Pence, anyway.

While it was most poignantly stated about health care, Kamala Harris used the same frame to prosecute the case on a range of other topics ranging from national security to racial justice. Again and again, Kamala Harris pointed out not only the policy failures of the Trump-Pence years but the moral failures of the person at the helm.

On national security, Harris made the case that Donald Trump has active and seething personal contempt for those who serve in uniform. As evidence, she pointed to Trump's disdain for fallen American soldiers whom he called suckers and losers, his denigration of traumatic brain injury among soldiers as 'headaches', or his open and public disdain for American heroes like John McCain.

On racial tensions, Harris panned Trump for being not just sympathetic to white supremacists but for actively engaging and leading them, as he did in reference to the Proud Boys a week ago. It's not so much that white supremacists support Trump, it's that he supports them - and Harris laid that bare for everyone to see.

On the economy, Kamala Harris zeroed in on the lost trade war with China - which cost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, were responsible for countless farm bankruptcies, and raised prices of consumer goods - as not just a dumb policy but an active choice to hurt Americans simply so Trump can look big and tough.

Again and again, Kamala Harris made the case that Trump's failures are attributable not simply to mistakes and misguided policies but to active, callous, and malicious disregard for the lives of ordinary Americans.

Americans can forgive incompetence, but we will punish malice.