Thursday, October 8, 2020

BTRTN: Trope-a-dope...Pence Evades Tough Questions, and Harris Wins the Debate

Turns out Mike Pence had a strategy for how he would defend the pathetic record of the Trump administration. He dodged every question about it. Here is Steve’s take on a debate in which Mike Pence did nothing to change the losing course of the Trump campaign.

Last night, Kamala Harris turned in a solid, upbeat performance in the Vice Presidential debate, and emerged the winner in the CNN instant poll by a margin of 59 to 38, enabling the Biden campaign to keep up its powerful momentum as the Presidential race enters its final weeks.

Trump supporters no doubt urgently hoped that Mike Pence would be able to change the momentum and margin of preference in a race that has been remarkably stable for months.  But there was nothing new in Pence’s game plan that was calculated to achieve such a goal. If anything, Pence trotted out the tired Trump tropes: revisionist history about COVID-19, attempted to affix ill-fitting labels on Biden and Harris, wildly aggrandizing isolated and relatively insignificant achievements of the Trump White House, and maintaining the steady Trump diet of exaggerating, deception, and outright deceit. Call it trope-a-dope: Pence brought nothing new last night.His only hope and his clear plan was to avoid tough questions and toss logs at Kamala Harris in the hope that she would trip.

She did not. Score this one for Harris. 

Sure, we can all celebrate that last night actually vaguely resembled a civilized debate, and not the septic tank explosion exhaled by the President of the United States in last Tuesday’s Presidential Debate.

But we should not skip over the fact that such a measure is truly only relative, and is valid only when compared to what was by far the most obscenely rude debate performance since Presidential debates were renewed in 1960.  In fact, Mike Pence disgracefully trampled over the moderator repeatedly, effectively filibustering to kill time and avoid tough questions. After last week, you would have thought that USA Today’s Susan Page would be fully prepped for blowhard behavior, and it was disappointing that she did not sharply cut off an abusive participant.

And, yes, by any measure, last night’s debate was going to be challenging for Mike Pence. After Donald Trump’s humiliating performance in last week’s debate and subsequent positive test for COVID-19, Pence, the head of the Administration’s coronavirus task force, had a great deal of mansplaining to do. 

The Vice President, who has the bearing, demeanor, and who knows – perhaps even the anatomical equipment of an aging Ken doll, made a fateful decision four years ago that he would hitch his political career and moral compass to the whims of Donald Trump. Now Pence is like a Dad who refuses to admit he made a crucial wrong turn on the interstate at the very start of the vacation, and is left trying to convince his kids that the Grand Canyon is actually in Pennsylvania.

In a party defined by sycophancy and hypocrisy, Mike Pence has willingly allowed himself to become chief sycophant and reigning hypocrite. Claiming to be a man of deep Christian faith, Pence turns a blind eye to Donald Trump’s depraved treatment of innocent immigrant children, his callous disregard for astonishing toll of coronavirus sickness and death, his inciting of racist violence and cozy comfort with white supremacists, his serial infidelity, and his casual use of prop Bibles. There’s actually an argument for respecting Trump more than Pence: at least Trump doesn’t pretend that he devoutly follows the teachings of Jesus.

What Pence lacks in fealty to the teachings of his God he more than offsets with his ferocious loyalty to the false god before him. One supposes that Mike Pence could have attempted to salvage a remnant of his own credibility last night by acknowledging just one tiny example of the Trump administration’s spectacular failures in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, or by expressing any single point of view that represented a sliver of daylight between him and his master. Nope. He went full lap dog and echoed each and every one of the lies and exaggerations that his boss bleats, secretes, and tweets.

Pence is one of those guys who thinks that a painfully earnest visage gives one permission to lie with a passion and intensity that demands he be believed. He furrows his brows and shakes his head to convey deep concern, and strikes poses of hurt, outrage, and offense, all to create a sturdy platform for justifying a fusillade of half-truths, quarter-truths, and unabashed full-Trumps.

And the debate was a just another hard day’s night for a man who had already sold his soul on the cheap. The good news for Mike Pence? When you have already mortgaged your honor and silenced your conscience, you don’t really have to worry all that much about compromising your integrity. That happened such a long time ago.

Mike Pence carried an ocean of water for Trump last night. Repeatedly throughout the evening, we heard the same old excuses, revisionist history, denials, and plain-old lies.

But more than anything, Pence refused to answer the questions he was being asked. He dodged, he changed the subject, he went back to finish prior answers, but look at the list of questions that this man utterly punted on:

Why is the US death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?

Vice President Pence, you were in the front row in a Rose Garden event 11 days ago, at what seems to have been a super spreader event for senior administration and congressional officials. No social distancing, few masks, and now a cluster of coronavirus cases among those who were there. How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so?

Vice President Pence, have you had a conversation or reached an agreement with President Trump about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of presidential disability? And if not, do you think you should?

Neither President Trump, nor Vice President Biden has released a sort of detailed health information that had become the modern norm until the 2016 election. And in recent days, President Trump’s doctors have given misleading answers, or refused to answer basic questions about his health. And my question to each of you in turn is, is this information voters deserve to know? Vice President Pence, would you like to go first?

Vice President Pence, you’re the former governor of Indiana. If Roe V Wade is overturned, what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?

You’ve mentioned earlier, Vice President Pence, that the president was committed to maintaining protections for people with pre-existing conditions, but you do have this court case that you are supporting, your administration supporting that would strike down the Affordable Care Act. The president says, President Trump says that he’s going to protect people with preexisting conditions, but he has not explained how he would do that, and that was one of the toughest nuts to crack when they were passing the Affordable Care Act. So, tell us specifically, how would your administration protect Americans with preexisting conditions to have access to affordable insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down?

Do you believe as the scientific community has concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly and have made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging?

Excellent questions, all. We could not possibly have asked for better, more specific, or more pointed questions to get at the issues facing our country. And Mike Pence did not give a direct answer a single one of these questions. Not one. And get this! This smarmy sleazeball would pointedly thank the moderator for her question before completely ignoring it.

Rather, Mike Pence spent the evening regurgitating the same old tired excuses that we have been hearing from Trump himself. Challenged about the administration’s anemic and deceitful response to the coronavirus pandemic, Pence once again attempted to claim that Trump’s Swiss-cheese China “travel ban” saved “millions of lives.” Challenged to discuss race relations in the wake of the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd travesties, Pence trotted out the old Trump stand-by about “rioters and looters.” Pence wasn’t trying to win the debate, he was trying to get through 90 minutes by filibustering, obfuscating, and misdirecting, pulling out all of Trump’s greatest hits and somehow hoping his “trope-a-dope” would tire Harris and cause her to lose her poise.

If we have any criticism of Senator Harris’ performance, it is that she utterly failed to make an issue of Pence’s evasion. Ironically, Pence would make a huge issue on the one question that Harris clearly avoided – the question of whether Biden would advocate a “court packing” scheme to offset the conservative edge in the Supreme Court. Harris should have repeatedly pointed out that Pence was blathering to avoid the tough questions he was being asked.

Make no mistake, Susan Page prepared some truly excellent questions. But coming up with good questions is proving to be the easy part of the job. Enforcing rules and demanding answers to the actual questions is proving to be much harder. If these debates are truly going to be useful, the moderators must be empowered to completely shut down rude behavior.

In the substance of the debate, it was clear to this writer that Kamala Harris landed more and better punches, kept her focus on the big issues, and appeared infinitely more warm and human than the ferociously programmed Mos Eisley droid to her left. 

And none of her zingers were better than her opening salvo – literally her very first words out of her mouth in the debate -- in which she characterized the Trump response to the COVID-19 pandemic as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country. And here are the facts. 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months. Over 7 million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed. We’re looking at frontline workers who have been treated like sacrificial workers. We are looking at over 30 million people, who in the last several months, had to file for unemployment. And here’s the thing, on January 28th, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic. They were informed that it’s lethal in consequence, that it is airborne, that it will affect young people, and that it would be contracted because it is airborne. And they knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you…”

Just minutes later, Harris listened to the Vice-Blowhard explain the administration’s refusal to follow CDC guidelines at the Amy Coney Barrett Rose Garden Super-Spreader Festival, by essentially saying that he and Trump respect the American people to make smart choices: “The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health..” Harris shot back:

“Let’s talk about respecting the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth. You respect the American people when you have the courage to be a leader.”

Asked if she would take a COVID-19 vaccine, Kamala Harris said that If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it.”

To this, Pence perversely attempted to twist her words: So the fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine, if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think is unconscionable. And Senator, I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives.” On several occasions, Pence had the gall to invoke the old trope about how “you can have your own opinion, but not your own facts.” 

For the Republican candidate to lead his argument by asking which party is governed by fact and which party plays politics with people’s lives is utterly insane.

Harris was good on offense. When Pence attempted to claim that Trump and his doctors had been “transparent” about his COVID-19 illness and treatment, Harris gracefully pivoted to Trump’s utter lack of transparency on his taxes, pounding away at Trump’s $750 payment for Federal income tax.

When Pence was evasive about Trump’s approach to healthcare, Harris was blunt:

“He interrupted me, and I’d like to just finish, please. If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”

Kamala had one problematic moment, and Pence went after her hard. Word is getting around that if the Democrats pull a trifecta and win the Presidency, the Senate, and the House, they plan on countering the Amy Coney Barrett appointment with something resembling a classic FDR court packing scheme. Pence challenged Harris to publicly deny such a plan exists, and Harris was simply too coy. She bobbed and weaved, and allowed Pence to have a victory dance.

Personally, I don’t understand why Biden and Harris are being so reticent on this point. Pete Buttigieg was asked about this in a Democratic Primary debate months ago, and he knew how to handle it… essentially saying that the overall mechanics of the Supreme Court are in need of review, with questions to be asked about a range of issues, including lifetime appointments that result in octogenarian judges. Back then, Mayor Pete pointed out that when Mitch McConnell denied Barack Obama the right to appoint a Supreme Court Justice, the Republicans were essentially packing the court. C’mon, Dems… you have a fair argument on this point. Don’t hide. Make the case.

Who won this debate? Americans are already so ferociously polarized that in all likelihood very few minds were changed last night. This means that it will be likely that partisans will simply declare their candidate the winner, and little will change in the polls.

But perhaps we now know why Trump went full-on Attila-the-Hun against Biden last week: it was arguably less damaging for Trump to scream and interrupt in order to drown out the words rather than allow the audience to hear Biden made his case.

Kamala Harris made the case last night, and the American people heard it. 

And it was not pretty for Mike Pence... or Donald Trump. 

In the end, the measure is simple: the party that is trailing in the overall campaign is the one that must use the debates to change the momentum. Nothing that Mike Pence did or said last night changed the momentum. He didn’t even try.

He played the trope-a-dope that he is in his shallow, sold soul, and Kamala Harris emerged triumphant.


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  1. I like the Dad on a freeway reference ... and recall visiting "Pine Creek Gorge, sometimes called The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, ... a 47-mile gorge carved into the Allegheny Plateau by Pine Creek in north-central Pennsylvania."

    And the PA Grand Canyon is to the real one as Pence is to a real Vice President. A somewhat attractive, shallow and shorter version of the real one.

  2. Great write up, Steve. I think you really hit the nail on the head with how poorly Pence handled the debate. Obviously, the debate wasn't the pathetic display of name calling and avoidance of answering questions, yet like you point out this is nothing to be in particularly pleased with. Something that people always mentioned when talking about Pence is how reasonable he appears when next to Trump, and that he acts as an "anchor" of sorts. Well, I definitely believe his performance at the debate dispels those assertions and reveal his true nature as (using your funny anecdote) Trump's lap-dog. If anything, this debate displayed why Pence himself would be unfit to serve if he ever had to take over the presidency. Pence would be rudderless without Trump telling him exactly what to do, which is reflective of most of the Republican party at the moment. Trump has wedged himself so firmly into the party that going against him is political suicide, so Pence (like all the rest) has to toe the line and instead focus all his energy into attacking the Biden/Harris campaign. Unfortunately for him, Biden/Harris do not need to defend an abhorrent response to Covid which consistently deceives the American people into thinking the virus is nothing serious. Really, I hope these debates motivate people to take a stand and to not just hope Trump will somehow magically fix an issue he let grow to such an extreme. Time is running out, so everyone needs to vote. I'm sure anyone here will already be registered, but just in case anyone is curious I've found this super quick registration checker


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