They Both Won: Late-Night News Shows Offer Differing Takes on VP Debate

Continuing Courthouse News’ examination of two popular news programs — MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour” and “Fox News at Night” — both programs shook up their format Wednesday night to review the vice-presidential debate. MSNBC’s Brian Williams and his guests were all praise for Kamala Harris and felt she carried the evening. Fox host Shannon Bream’s guests disagreed.

Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as he answers a question during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

(CN) — MSNBC anchor Brian Williams began Wednesday’s broadcast of his show “The 11th Hour” by contrasting the White House’s coronavirus policies with those put forward by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris, before briefly touching on President Donald Trump’s reportedly anemic $750 income tax bill.

Afterward, Williams played a clip from Wednesday’s vice presidential debate. In it, Harris called out Trump’s now infamous refusal to condemn white supremacy during the Sept. 30 presidential debate. Meanwhile Vice President Mike Pence, with an abnormally large fly living rent-free in his hair, shook his head in disagreement (the fly was unphased by this).

Williams’ guests for the evening included Claire McCaskill, former Democratic senator from Missouri; James Carville, former Democratic strategist; Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s “The Last Word”; and Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post.

McCaskill summed up the debate by noting some high points from Harris. “I do think the moments that stood out in the whole debate, besides her really showing her command of a great bit of policy across a lot of different sectors of public policy, was health care and the mismanagement of the Covid crisis… I think she handled them pitch perfectly,” McCaskill said.

O’Donnell noted both candidates behaved admirably, a far cry from last week’s raucous presidential debate, and called Pence “a prince of gentility” when compared with his boss. He also questioned whether Pence may have done Trump a disservice by appearing so measured and controlled, calling their performances “a stark contrast.”

Robinson, noting Pence’s relatively reserved performance tonight, pondered whether Pence will be running for president himself in 2024. “Maybe he’s thinking four years hence, maybe he’s thinking a little bit or as much about 2024 as he is about 2020,” Robinson said.

Wondering aloud if Wednesday’s performance was merely a warmup, Williams asked his guests if “a reformed Republican Party in the event of a loss this time around” will even want Pence at the top of the next ticket. Carville went as far as referring to tonight’s debate as the “first debate in the 2024 cycle” and said Harris helped herself more in that regard tonight than Pence.

“They have to be conscious of 2024, because they’re sizing these people up already. I hate to say it, but that’s politics — you’re always looking to the next one,” added Carville.

Screenshot of MSNBC program “The 11th Hour” on Oct. 7, 2020.

Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend Indiana and an early favorite in the Democratic primary before bowing out of the race earlier this year to endorse Biden, made an appearance on the show to talk up Harris.

“I’m so proud of Kamala Harris, she made such a powerful and direct case, got right past the kind of Trump Twitter noise machine to speak to the American people about what we know to be true. The VP kept trying to create this picture that everything is going along just fine, and she poked right through that,” said Buttigieg.

He also questioned whether Pence was trying to impress his boss by being rude to debate moderator Susan Page, which came across as uncharacteristically brash for the mild-mannered Pence.

Williams wrapped up his show by retouching on Covid-19 and asking Karine Jean-Pierre, campaign chief of staff to Harris, how she felt about her candidate’s performance.

“We are currently going through a pandemic, one of the worst pandemics in a generation… and she laid out what a Biden-Harris administration would do to turn that around,” Jean-Pierre said. “She was able to do that by cutting through the noise, cutting through the lies and cutting through the distortion.”

“Fox News at Night” host Shannon Bream started her show in a fairly balanced way, calling into question some of Pence’s more evasive answers.

Pence ducked a question on Trump’s ever-elusive health care plan by bringing up abortion in what appeared like a veiled attempt to rally evangelicals, which Bream called “another non-answer”. She quickly pivoted, however, to Harris’ own less-than-direct response to a question about packing the Supreme Court in favor of Democrats.

Steve Hilton, a frequent Fox News contributor, said Harris never did provide a straight answer to the question.

“Whether that’s fracking, on taxes or on what they’re going to do on the Supreme Court, there’s all these areas where actually you can’t get a straight answer,” Hilton said. “Why? Because [they] are not politicians with a strong belief or principle about anything. They’re machine politicians. They go with wherever the power base is in their party — right now that is the far left.”

While discussing Covid-19, Bream played a clip of Pence denigrating the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic, which killed 12,500 Americans.

Screenshot from the broadcast of “Fox News at Night” on Oct. 7, 2020.

“The reality is when you talk about failure in this administration, we actually do know what failure looks like in a pandemic,” Pence said. “When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, not 7 ½ million people contracted the swine flu, 60 million Americans contracted the swine flu.”

It should be noted that the mortality rate for Covid-19 has already far surpassed that of H1N1, despite infecting many fewer people.

Covid hung over the debate like a phantom. It was a part of nearly every segment, and a pair of Plexiglas dividers positioned between the candidates like a jailhouse visiting room was a visceral reminder.

“It was a much different debate, in tone and tenor, from last week in the presidential debate,” said Brett Baier, Fox News chief political anchor. “It was much more controlled, much more disciplined, much more polished, and those words can be used to describe Vice President Pence.” Baier overwhelmingly complimented the vice president on his performance.

Bream switched gears to a clip of Pence taking particular offense to Harris’ suggestion that a Biden administration would not raise taxes on Americans making less than $400,000 per year — pointing out that they plan to repeal Trump’s tax cuts, which Pence claims saves the average American $2,000 per year.

At this point Harris and moderator Page had to repeatedly interrupt Pence, who — channeling Trump’s performance last week — insisted on making his point, time limits be darned. Harris retorted, “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can have a conversation.”

Pence shook his head disapprovingly as she did so.

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