The vice presidential debate showed, to no one’s surprise, that Mike Pence is a much more conventional politician than President Donald Trump. But Pence’s smooth demeanor and polished presentation don’t exactly build confidence in the Trump administration tonight. Instead, they highlighted just how unfit Trump is — and how willing those around him are to cover over his ugly authoritarian bullying with a thin veneer of civility.
Trump’s answers were rambling and filled with vague shorthand references to right-wing media conspiracy theories, which he made little effort to explain or contextualize. He also launched a cruel, utterly unprovoked attack on one of Joe Biden’s children, who suffers from addiction. And infamously, when asked to condemn white supremacist organizations, Trump instead urged one of those organizations, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by.”
Pence’s performance was very different. He did interrupt Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris far too much. But he did also let her speak. And he certainly did not insult her family.
More, he made the gestures at civility and warmth you expect from politicians. He told the American people he was sorry for the pain they were experiencing during the Covid pandemic. He promised good jobs at good wages. Early in the debate, he congratulated Harris on being selected as the Democratic nominee. And just before the close, he mentioned the long-standing friendship between conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and praised them both for modeling bipartisan collegiality.
Pence can minimally restrain himself, and is able to make the gestures at empathy and personal generosity that the public generally expect from their politicians. Harris too was professional, communicating clearly and directly, and making the case for Biden’s warmth and policy smarts with a lot more force and clarity than Biden himself has generally been able to do. Trump lost the debate according to all reliable polls because he showed the nation that he is a boorish, meandering and hateful fool. Neither Harris nor Pence undermined themselves nearly that badly. One CNN survey immediately after the debate did find Harris winning a decisive victory, but it’s hard to imagine the polls shifting a great deal as a result of this contest.
Pence’s performance in comparison to Trump’s was dramatically adequate. But that does not necessarily reflect well on the current VP, since much of his adequate performance involved defending the guy who just a week ago got up on stage and demonstrated that he is shockingly unfit. In fact, Pence sat on stage and smoothly lied about the first debate, claiming Trump condemned white supremacists when the president shockingly failed to do so. Similarly, when Harris pointed to public video and extensive reporting about Trump’s many statements crassly insulting military personnel as “losers” and “suckers”, Pence simply denied it all.
The most disturbing moment in the debate, though, came towards the end, when moderator Susan Page of USA Today asked Pence if he would respect the election results if Trump were to lose in November. Trump at his debate used a similar question to undermine faith in the election, insisting that a Democratic win would be illegitimate.
Pence was less explicit, but not that much less explicit. Like Trump, he falsely claimed that mail-in ballots encouraged fraud. He also said that Democrats have been “trying to overturn the results” of the 2016 election, implying that the impeachment inquiry is equivalent to Trump potentially refusing to accept election results in 2020. Pence, like Trump, deliberately avoided any commitment to a peaceful transition of power. That kind of shilly-shallying should be unacceptable, to put it mildly, in a public servant in a democracy.
It would be nice to say that the vice-presidential debate, with its gestures towards amity and coherent argument, restored my faith in America’s system of government and its electoral process. But it’s hard to take comfort in Pence’s relative facility when it’s shamelessly deployed to cover for a man who openly revels in his ignorance, cruelty, and authoritarianism.
Pence is part of an administration that has done little to prevent 200,000 American deaths in the pandemic, which has deliberately and monstrously separated innocent children from their parents, which wants to strip health care from millions of Americans. He himself has been a tireless foe of LGBT rights and women’s rights, and his reactionary ignorance about public health helped spur an AIDs crisis in Indiana under his watch. There is a lot in his record to dislike. But the most chilling thing about him is still the bland, oleaginous enthusiasm with which he lies for his boss. A man who is willing to sign on as Donald Trump’s chief advocate and defender is a man whose conscience might let him do anything in pursuit of power.