Wednesday night’s debate between Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence took place in the shadow of a much more consequential debate, the disastrous encounter between Joe Biden and Donald Trump two weeks ago. The debate between the presidential contenders was one of the most dismaying staged events in modern American politics, with a seething Trump constantly and rudely interrupting Biden, often with crude insults. That debate was painful to watch, although it did have the salutary effect of making Trump even more unpopular. The gap between Biden and Trump has gone from roughly 7 percent to more than 9 percent, in part, polling maven Nate Silver suggests, because of the debate.
Pence had the difficult job of advancing a Trumpian agenda but without displaying the Trumpian bullying that seems to be turning voters off. It was a difficult line to walk, because he had to still maintain the stance of dominance that the Republican base admires.
What we saw in the debate was Pence presenting himself as a normal avatar of Trump, a Republican politician who firmly holds to all his party’s talking points but won’t be openly cruel and give vent to ugly emotions. As New York Times reporter Nick Confessore noted, “It is unexpectedly weird to hear a politician try to do the Trump politics with a conventional, normcore politician’s manner and cadence.” Michael Brendan Dougherty, a thoughtful conservative writer at National Review, made a similar point, saying, “Mike Pence’s political skill really is just ‘high conscientiousness.’ Hitting the briefing books hard, practicing, and not letting his temper go. That’s it.”
But if Pence seemed refreshingly normal, it was only because Trump is part of the spectrum. On its own terms, Pence’s performance was unsettling. He constantly interrupted Harris and the moderator, journalist Susan Page. True, he did it less rudely than Trump, but it was a persistent pattern of disrespect, which got so bad that Page had to point out that he was talking much more than Harris. Clara Jeffery, editor in chief of Mother Jones, observed, “Pence’s condescension and interruptions of Harris are of a piece with the Pence/Graham rule, never being alone with any woman not his wife. This is a profoundly sexist and damaging position for anyone who works for Pence.”
Harris, for her part, fended off Pence’s abrasiveness well, often with spirited mockery. But still, she was constrained by the difficulty that Pence, like Trump, is a shameless liar. It’s difficult to fact-check either Trump or Pence in real time because the lies come so fast. As CNN remarked, “Pence, who works for a President who is a serial liar and who trades in gross misinformation, accused Harris of being untruthful when she told voters that if they had a pre-existing health condition ‘they are coming for you.’”
Pence also claimed that “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect preexisting conditions for every American.”
“This is false,” CNN reminded us. “The Trump administration, along with Republicans in Congress, have long promised a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act and that they would also protect people with pre-existing conditions. However, the President has yet to put forth a concrete plan that will provide the same strong provisions that currently exist under the ACA.”
This is one of many Trumpian lies Pence told. Harris couldn’t challenge him on all of them because it wasn’t in her political interest to make the debate too contentious. “The most excruciating thing about that debate,” commented journalist Lindsay Beyerstein, “was watching Harris decide not to take Pence apart because that would be too ‘mean’ and VP debates aren’t that important anyway.”
Near the end of the debate, Pence was asked what he would do if the Republicans lost the presidential election but Trump wouldn’t accept a peaceful transfer of power. He refused to answer the question and said they expected to win. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted, “Mike Pence refuses to say what he will do if Donald Trump refuses to respect the results of the election and the democratic will of the people. These are extraordinarily disturbing times.”
Mike Pence proved he’s a more presentable version of Trump, but he’s still a Trumpian through and through. He only appeared acceptable in comparison to Trump. In normal terms, he’s a dangerous far-right politician.