Wednesday night's vice presidential debate probably shouldn't be happening. With coronavirus spreading quickly through the Trump administration, Mike Pence may pose a legitimate health risk to Kamala Harris and the debate's moderator, USA Today's Susan Page. Given those real dangers, the Commission on Presidential Debates has decided to move the candidates from standing seven to now 13 feet apart and has approved the installation of a plexiglass barrier between Harris and Pence. Pence's team, as Politico reported on Monday, opposed the barrier. "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it," Pence's spokeswoman, Katie Miller, mockingly responded to the decision.
That response is completely in keeping with how dangerously this administration, especially Trump, has downplayed the pandemic, even at its own peril. Trump's taunting of Biden at last week's presidential debate for his mask wearing, we now know, came just hours before the president tested positive for the virus.
Pence is unlikely to show such bluster on Wednesday night. While most of Trump world has used the president's COVID-19 diagnosis to extravagantly extol his superhuman status and aggressively attack reporters asking legitimate questions about his condition, the sanctimonious Pence will likely take a different tack, piously praising Trump's medical team and thanking the American people for their prayers. In an administration full of crooks and con men, Pence has always dutifully played the part of innocent choir boy.
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That's been his role from the start. Back in 2016, Trump picked Pence, a failing governor of a small state, as his running mate for the sole purpose of bolstering his standing with white evangelicals. If religious conservatives felt unsure about voting for the thrice-married casino magnate and serial adulterer, Pence's presence on the ticket convinced many — or at least provided them with a handy excuse — to vote for Trump. We may never know if Trump really needed Pence to capture the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for him in 2016. But their continued fervent enthusiasm for the president — they remain Trump's strongest base of support — suggests Pence has never been the difference maker.
Still, the overly-ambitious Pence knows what works with the base. "I'm a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order," Pence often likes to dramatically say, a line that is as unctuous as it is untrue. But even if he doesn't use those gimmicky words tonight, Harris, the former prosecutor, should hold them up as a damning indictment against Pence. Nearly four years into the administration, Pence has shown that more than anything, he's a Trumper through and through, a willing accomplice to the president's worst habits and actions rather than a consistent voice for any real principles, Christian or otherwise.
With more than 200,000 Americans dead from coronavirus, Pence's exaggerated religiosity may strike many Americans as particularly galling. The cruel indifference the Trump administration has shown to the suffering of ordinary Americans, not only in this pandemic but especially so, is a deep moral failing as much as it is a political one. While Pence is likely to seize on topics like abortion rights or "religious liberty" as moments to speak about his personal faith, as he did in his 2016 debate with Tim Kaine, Harris should steer the conversation about 2020's most urgent issue to make Pence account for the administration's botched handling of coronavirus on the Christian grounds he claims to hold so fiercely. How does a self-described pro-life, pro-family presidency, she might ask, preside so poorly over a pandemic that has destroyed thousands of American lives and families?
Beyond coronavirus, Harris might ask how an administration that has separated children from their families and caged them at the border, has ignored the perilous plight of persons of color while coddling white nationalists, and has closed the nation's doors to those seeking asylum and refuge, including religious minorities, fulfills the Scripture's command to care for "the least of these"? Does Pence's religious charity extend to those who aren't white evangelicals?
None of this questioning would amount to religious ridicule of Pence, it should be said. Quite the opposite. Rather, should Harris cross-examine Pence on how his Christian faith squares with what the Trump administration has been doing, she might present it as indicative of her own sincere respect for his expressed values as much as a shrewd debate tactic. Rather than reflexively conceding the moral high ground to a performatively devout Republican politician as Democrats have so often done, Harris could question Pence on the very religious terms that he promotes himself.
If Pence, as expected, presents a Trump presidency as the last defense against godless secularism that a Democratic win would bring about — a strange charge against the churchgoing Biden — Harris should hold Pence responsible for the absolute hell on earth that Trump's presidency has brought to bear.
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