In April, as the country’s coronavirus outbreak surged, President Trump mocked Mike Pence’s filibustering skills, presenting himself as a teller of tough truths compared with his slippery Vice-President. “That’s one of the greatest answers I’ve ever heard, because Mike was able to speak for five minutes and not even touch your question,” Trump said in a press briefing after Pence avoided answering a reporter. “I said, that’s what you call a great professional.” Throughout Wednesday night’s debate, Trump’s version of Pence was fully on display, as the Vice-President ducked questions and outright refused to answer them for much of the ninety minutes.
Perhaps most significant, given that Trump is currently stricken with the coronavirus that he denied was an ongoing threat to the American people, Pence refused to say whether he had discussed the issue of “Presidential disability” with Trump. But this particular dodge hardly stood out on a night when Pence avoided more of moderator Susan Page’s questions than he answered. The Vice-President began the debate by refusing to say why the United States has had so many more deaths from the coronavirus than other leading nations. He ended it by refusing to say whether he would accept the peaceful transfer of power after the election. In between, Pence managed to avoid numerous other questions, from whether he believes climate change is an “existential threat” to what the Administration’s plan is for providing health care to Americans with pre?xisting conditions. For much of the debate, in fact, Pence seemed more eager to deliver pre-planned attack lines against his Democratic opponent, Senator Kamala Harris, than he was to defend the Trump-Pence Administration’s record.
Harris, a sharp-tongued former prosecutor whose appointment to the ticket this summer immediately raised expectations for this debate with Pence, proved to be an agile and at times eloquent opponent. She was especially pointed on the subject that Pence least wanted to discuss: the Administration’s abysmal handling of the pandemic. Harris’s first line of the debate was also one of her best, calling the incumbent’s response to the coronavirus “the greatest failure of any Presidential Administration in the history of our country,” which sounds like an exaggeration until you remember that the COVID-19 death toll is already the largest mass-casualty event in American history aside from the Second World War, the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the Civil War. The only candidate on either ticket who has not held national office before, Harris had the most to prove going into the debate in Salt Lake City, and she did so while dodging a few questions of her own along the way. Do she and Joe Biden plan to pack the Supreme Court in response to the Republicans’ plan to ram through a new Justice days before the election? Does she think Biden has been forthcoming enough about his health, given that he will be the oldest President ever elected if he wins on November 3rd? We don’t know, because Harris would not answer.
Both Harris and Pence are younger and far more articulate politicians than their running mates, fully capable of holding their own in a televised argument that cleared the low bar of not degenerating into a food fight at a senior-citizens’ center. The debate seemed sort of normal—at least after Trump’s frenetic performance of a week earlier. But the more I listened to Pence the more I realized that the Vice-President of 2020 is no longer the deeply conventional, if fervently right-wing, evangelical of four years ago. Or even the oleaginous Trump suck-up he has been for much of the Administration’s tenure. He has been changed, and radically so, by his association with the President, and Wednesday night showed something both new and disturbing: Pence has come to resemble a lower-decibel Trump, lying with a fluency and brazenness that might have shocked his former moralistic self.
Once presented as the acceptable public front for Trumpism to those who might be offended by the President’s grosser displays of ego and misogyny, this new Pence was ruder and cruder, and he spent much of the evening interrupting the two women with whom he shared the stage, refusing to listen when the moderator implored him to follow the rules, and simply seizing extra time to rebut Harris whether Page offered it or not. This Pence was not the Middle American cleanup man of this spring’s anxious coronavirus press conferences; he was nasty, an elbow-thrower who dropped snide references to Biden as a plagiarist, inserted random media-bashing into long-winded soliloquies, and peddled a pet Trump conspiracy theory about the 2016 campaign. Like the boss, he repeated falsehoods about the Democratic platform with abandon—they are going to raise your taxes “on Day One” and “abolish” fossil fuels and eliminate fracking and allow taxpayer-funded abortions “up to the moment of birth”—all of which was not only untrue but so exaggerated beyond the actual Democratic platform that it was hard to imagine anyone but the most diehard Republican believing it. This sounded like Donald Trump talking, not Mike Pence. A quieter, less bombastic Donald Trump, to be sure, but Trump nonetheless.
Mike Pence wasn’t the only public official who channelled his inner Trump this week. For the last few days, the White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley, has been doing a pretty good impression of the reality-denying President, including misleading the public about Trump’s health in order to leave what the doctor called an “upbeat” impression. On Wednesday, with even basic questions about how and when Trump contracted the illness still unanswered, Conley released an official statement to the public about the President’s treatment for a potentially lethal disease that began by saying, “The president this morning says, ‘I feel great!’?” That must surely be the first known use of an exclamation point and a quote from a patient in an official medical document meant to provide critical health information to the American people.
The good doctor is merely the latest aide in this White House to find out what Pence has clearly learned: when the approach of a President running for re?lection in the midst of a deadly pandemic is to deny its seriousness, then all those in his orbit will be sucked into progressively more humiliating and absurd efforts to go along with the ruse. This was bizarre enough as a strategy back in March and April, when relatively few Americans had yet to die of COVID-19. It is more or less politically impossible now, when so many thousands have perished and the United States’ response is a global embarrassment.
Trump, though, is immune to embarrassment—his lack of shame has long been one of his political superpowers—and so it must be for those around him. Among the many questions that Pence refused to answer was one of the week’s more obvious, given the large cluster of coronavirus cases in the White House and the President’s own illness after months of refusing to wear a mask or observe social distancing: Why should the American people listen when you tell them to abide by public-health guidelines that you yourself refuse to follow? Pence’s response was a model of misdirection, which had something to do with the Green New Deal and the coming government takeover of health care under the radical-left Democrats. Harris could only look on in amazement, shaking her head at the brazenness.
None of it really mattered, of course. No matter how much of a Trumpian makeover Mike Pence has undergone, Vice-Presidential debates do not change the outcome of Presidential elections. This one won’t either. By the time a fly improbably showed up on Pence’s close-cropped white hair and stayed there, without the Vice-President even appearing to notice, for a good two minutes, it was clear who the evening’s real winner would be. It was the fly, who will surely be remembered in debate history after all of Pence’s whoppers are long forgotten.
Read More About the 2020 Election
- Why Joe Biden must win.
- The fall and rise of Kamala Harris.
- When a sitting President threatens to delay a sacrosanct American ritual like an election, you should listen.
- To understand the path Donald Trump has taken to the 2020 election, look at what he has provided the executive class.
- What happens if Trump fights the election results?
- The refusal by Mitch McConnell to rein in Trump is looking riskier than ever.
- Sign up for our election newsletter for insight and analysis from our reporters and columnists.