The Wednesday-morning post-debate quarterbacking is well underway, and it seems many members of the punditry are giving Mike Pence credit for maintaining style and poise as Tim Kaine repeatedly laid into Donald Trump.
How quickly they forget.
If LGBT issues had come up even once, commentators might have remembered that what they were seeing was not style, but a tactic Pence has used before — he hears the challenging questions but doesn’t acknowledge that they’re there. Throughout the vice presidential debate, as Kaine called out Donald Trump’s offensive comments and bizarre positions, Pence would smirk and shake his head — in clear recognition of what had been said — and then proceed as if he was participating in an entirely different conversation, avoiding any accountability for the valid points made. That’s exactly how he has tried to dodge accusations that he supports discrimination against LGBT people.
Last year, Pence signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law. Though it was called RFRA, Indiana’s law was far more broad than laws of the same name in other states. Indiana’s differed in a way that seemed clearly designed to allow businesses and individuals to use their religious beliefs to legally justify refusing service to LGBT people. Though Pence eventually caved and approved a change to the law that clarified it could not be cited to defend discrimination, he spent a few weeks denying that discrimination was even relevant to the conversation.
The clearest example of this was an infamous interview Pence gave shortly into the controversy with George Stephanopoulos. Eight different times, Stephanopoulos asked Pence directly — “yes or no” — whether the law allows for discrimination against LGBT people and whether Pence believes it should be legal to engage in such discrimination. Eight times, Pence refused to answer.
It’s probably no coincidence that Kaine started similarly keeping count of the number of times that Pence refused to respond to questions about Trump’s record. “Six times tonight, I have said to Governor Pence, ‘I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position’ on one issue after the next,” he said. “And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate.”
Pence’s response was telling: “Well, let’s — no, no, don’t put words in my mouth.” But of course, Kaine didn’t put words in Pence’s mouth; he did the very opposite. He pointed out that no relevant words were coming out whatsoever. “And yet he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend,” Kaine added, twisting the knife. “And I just think that should be underlined.”
Pence’s extremist history of anti-LGBT positions is the perfect companion to Trump’s racism and misogyny. Proposing that funding for HIV/AIDS treatment should instead be diverted to harmful ex-gay therapy programs is right up there with building a wall to keep out Mexican “crime” and “rapists.” By using the exact same dodges that he used to avoid acknowledging accountability for his own record to avoid accountability for Trump’s, he actually demonstrated how culpable they both are.
And if the Pence m.o. is ignoring true statements, the Trump m.o. is denying true statements, and by the end of the debate, Pence had adopted the latter tactic. Repeatedly denying that Trump had said the things that he said in front of countless cameras, Pence descended from simply refusing to take accountability to denying that there was even any accountability to take.
Pence deserves criticism for not addressing his ticket’s record, not praise for how he did it. Lauding Pence for how well he played the part instead of scrutinizing the part itself falls into the same trap of false equivalence that has plagued this election cycle. Sure, Kaine was shouty and frequently interrupted both Pence and moderator Elaine Quijano, but at least he could defend his running mate’s record, cite actual policy proposals, and critique his opponents with verifiable facts. Pence just pretended most of the election cycle hadn’t even happened.
As Jamelle Bouie pointed out at Slate, Pence may have seemed smoother, but “he used that polish and confidence to deny Trump’s rhetoric and behavior and gaslight the country that has borne witness to them. To call this winning is to act as if nothing matters.”
If theater critics want to favor Pence’s performance, that makes some sense, but anyone claiming to be a political pundit should be held to a higher standard in their analysis. This was a bigot defending a bigot, and he did so by attacking people — like those concerned about systemic racism in law enforcement — for even acknowledging that “implicit bias” might exist. Indeed, Pence and Trump, when faced with an audience not already inclined to agree with everything they say, craft a reality in which no bigotry exists — including their own. But theater is exactly what this illusion is.