Vice Presidential Debate Highlights: Pence and Harris Square Off - Rolling Stone
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5 Times Mike Pence Tried to Gaslight America During the Vice Presidential Debate

Donald Trump’s wing man was a torrent of misinformation, denial, and lies in his debate with Kamala Harris

At the vice presidential debate Wednesday Sen. Kamala Harris delivered an indictment of the death and economic destruction unleashed by the Trump administration, which Mike Pence responded to with a litany of lies, dodges, and slippery evasions.

Unlike the first presidential debate, the vice presidential debate was recognizable as such. Meeting at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the candidates sat at desks placed 12 feet apart, with plexiglass partitions offering a decorative nod to the fact that Pence had engaged in the alleged superspreader activities that have left President Donald Trump and more than a dozen White House associates infected with the coronavirus. That Pence came to the debate with a bloodshot eye and was visited by a fly that perched on his snow-white hair for several minutes did not add to an aura of good health.

The candidates were composed and largely civil, although Pence relentlessly overtalked the moderator, who attempted in vain to enforce the time limits the campaigns agreed to. But Pence, in his whispery way, proved just as alarming as Trump’s bluster and bravado. He dismissed the science of global warming and “climate alarmists” while celebrating fracking, and he refused to say he’d stand up to Trump if the aspiring autocrat refused to accede to a lawful transfer of power.

Harris rarely attacked Pence directly, targeting instead President Trump, and an administration she declared “has forfeited its right to reelection.” She also repeatedly stiff-armed the Vice President’s attempts to interrupt her by staring at him through the plexiglass and insisting, “I’m speaking.”

Pence, as is his role under Trump, projected sobriety and ballast. But Americans listening to his words mostly heard Pence spewing bullshit. He distorted Trump’s record far beyond any fair sense of the word spin, and he attempted to slip out of tight corners with gaslighting, claiming that Democrats had caused the Trump crises he was being called to account for. Harkening back to his roots in right-wing radio, Pence described a parallel universe in which Trump has competently responded to Covid, systemic racism doesn’t exist, “forest management” can fix climate change, and GOP tax policy is a boon to the middle class. It didn’t go over well with debate watchers who judged Harris the victor, 59 to 38 percent, according to a snap CNN poll.

Below are 5 slippery exchanges that defined the debate and underscored how Pence repackages Trump’s horror show for Americans who like the results — but want it wrapped in prettier paper.

THE COVID OUTBREAK

“President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.”

Vice President Mike Pence walked onto the stage in Salt Lake City Wednesday with a significant disadvantage: the fact that, as the leader of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force for the last eight months, he has been responsible for spearheading the government’s response to Covid-19. And if the Plexiglass partitions on stage didn’t make it obvious, America’s response is not going well! Still, Pence made a valiant effort at gaslighting viewers into thinking everything was fine. He touted Trump’s early decision to suspend travel from China — a decision, Pence claimed, gave the administration time to “reinvent testing,” see to the delivery of “billions of supplies,” and develop a vaccine.

The administration did try to reinvent testing, and it failed, miserably; the administration also failed to coordinate supplies for the areas hit hardest, forcing states to bid against each other for PPE and other critical medical supplies.

The Trump administration’s response has, objectively, been an abject failure, and Harris responded by calling it exactly that: “The greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” She went on to lay out the facts: at least 210,000 dead, seven million infected, one in five businesses closed, 30 million unemployed. “Whatever the vice president is  claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn’t worked when you’re looking at 210,000 dead bodies … American lives that have been lost. Families that are grieving that loss.”

Pence, preferring to ignore the fact that Harris called out his own personal failure to stop the spread of the virus, tried to convince viewers they’d just heard something different. “When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the ‘American people’ have made,” he said, bristling.

THE VACCINE

Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”

Mere hours before the debate began, President Trump — still actively battling Covid, probably infectious, and disregarding medical advice — stood maskless outside the White House and declared: “The vaccines are coming momentarily.” That promise comes amid reports Trump is personally pressuring the heads of the five drug companies now in clinical trials for a vaccine to rush it to market ahead of the election. His administration has also reportedly sought to block FDA rules conceived specifically to ensure the vaccine is safe before it is widely distributed. Moderator Susan Page asked Harris if she would be comfortable taking a vaccine.

“If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, then I’ll be first in line to take it, absolutely,” Harris said. “But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it — then I’m not taking it.”

Champion umbrage-taker Mike Pence took considerable umbrage at the idea that Harris might not trust the Trump administration on the matter. “We are going to have a vaccine in record time, in unheard of time. In less than a year,” Pence said. “So the fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in the vaccine — I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives. The reality is that we will have a vaccine, we believe, before the end of this year, and it will have the capacity to save countless American lives. And your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine — it’s just unacceptable.”

THE CLIMATE CRISIS

“President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to listen to the science.”

The Trump administration has waged an all-out war on science, most notably through its denial of the climate crisis. But when the issue was raised on Wednesday night, Pence had the gall to claim that Trump “has made it clear that we’re going to listen to the science.”

He broke his own promise seconds later when he tried to argue that the record-setting wildfires that have torched the western United States, and the hurricanes that have ravaged the east, are not connected to climate change — despite a bounty of scientific evidence to the contrary. The vice president chalked up the connection to “climate alarmists.”

If this didn’t make it clear enough that the White House does not believe in science, Harris was quick to reference comments the president made less than a month ago during a trip to her home state of California. “It’ll start getting cooler, you watch,” Trump said when pressed to acknowledge the climate crisis by California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. When Crowfoot said science doesn’t agree, Trump made his administration’s position clear:

“I don’t think science knows, actually.”

When Pence was asked point-blank a few minutes later on Wednesday evening whether he believes climate change poses an existential threat, he briefly said that “the climate is changing” and they’re “going to follow the science” — before pivoting to attack Harris for wanting to raise taxes.

HEALTH CARE

“President Trump and I have a plan to improve healthcare and protect pre-existing conditions for every American.”

President Trump has been promising Americans a comprehensive health care plan since before he took office. He’s yet to deliver anything resembling a coherent plan, instead opting to focus the administration’s efforts on laying waste to the Affordable Care Act, including its protections for pre-existing conditions.

Pence claimed on Wednesday that he and the president do indeed “have a plan to improve healthcare and protect pre-existing conditions for every American.” He didn’t care to elaborate, because as has been made clear over the past four years, no such plan exists.

When Pence was later asked explicitly by moderator Susan Page how the Trump administration plans to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions, the vice president immediately started attacking Harris for potentially moving to expand the Supreme Court. A back-and-forth over appointing new justices ensued, and the issue of health care was never brought up again.

TAXES

“On day one, Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes.”

In a debate over the Trump economy, Harris highlighted Biden’s plan to reverse the tax cuts targeted at corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Harris is better at the broad strokes than the fine-grain details, but accurately described Trump’s tax cut as a grotesque giveaway to the wealthiest: “He passed a tax bill benefiting the top one percent and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a two-trillion-dollar deficit that the American people are going to have to pay for,” Harris said. “On day one, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill. He’ll get rid of it. And what he’ll do with the money is invest it in the American people… upgrading our roads and bridges, but also investing in clean energy and renewable energy.”

Pence pounced, pointing to the crumbs that the tax bill left to middle class voters. “America, you just heard Senator Harris tell you, on day one, Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes. It’s really remarkable to think,” he said.

Harris quickly clarified that Biden’s tax plan protects workers who make less than $400,000 from any tax increases, to which Pence responded with deaf persistence: “Once again,” he said, “Senator Harris is denying the fact that they’re going to raise taxes on every American.”

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