Wednesday, October 5, 2016

VP debate: The stuck record player

Back in the days of vinyl records the worst thing that could happen to an audiophile was to experience a scratched 33 RPM record. The needle would hit that scratch and the record player would be stuck, forever in the same groove repeating endlessly. Mike Pence was a scratched record and the VP debate was the player. Nothing Kaine did moved Pence off the riff of apologies for Donald Trump. The most offensive moments of Trump's verbal behavior were forgotten by Pence or just ignored.

One of the amazing things in this election cycle is the extent to which Republican politicians will defend Trump at the expense of their own previously avowed principles. That was Mike Pence's job last night and he succeeded. Frank Bruni at the NY Times opines on the VP debate.

It wasn’t exactly a vivid performance, but it was an eerily consistent one, and it answered the question of how a man who supposedly prides himself on his virtue defends a running mate who is often bereft of it. He sets his jaw. He slows his pulse. He practices a bemused chuckle, perfects deafness to anything he prefers not to hear and purges from his memory anything he doesn’t want to own.

That included the whole grotesque cornucopia of Donald Trump’s slurs and bad behavior, which Tim Kaine had studied up on exhaustively, knew by heart and kept throwing at Pence, pressing for the barest glimmer of shame or the slightest hint of apology. It was pointless — a point that Kaine himself made about an hour into this exercise in futility.

“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,” Kaine said, his voice somewhat squeaky with frustration. “And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate, and yet he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.”

That’s a fair enough summary of the vice-presidential debate, and it flagged what made the event so fascinating, which was Pence — specifically, the astonishing peace he has made with Trump and his wholehearted readiness to promote a man who should be so offensive to him.

In the face of Kaine’s incessant grilling, Pence blithely denied that Trump had made statements that he inarguably had, changed the subject to Hillary Clinton’s failings, mocked Kaine for being scripted and dismissed Kaine and Clinton as career politicians — ignoring the fact that he fits that description, too.

Substantively, it was galling. Strategically, it may well have worked. With his minimalist speaking style, Pence drew attention to Kaine’s maximalist salvos. Pence’s unflappability threw Kaine’s irritation and interruptions into relief.

Pence has worn a badge of Christianity insisting that his religion comes before his Republicanism.

“Negative campaigning is wrong,” [Pence has written], adding, “A campaign ought to demonstrate the basic human decency of the candidate.”

The Trump campaign has demonstrated anything but, and yet Pence has repeatedly vouched for Trump, even as Trump savaged the Muslim parents of a soldier who died defending America, seemed to encourage Second Amendment enthusiasts to take aim at Clinton, pinned the birther conspiracy on her, and spent the days after his own debate — a disastrous one — lashing out at a former Miss Universe and tweeting about pornography.

On Tuesday night Pence rewarded Trump’s inane, insane antics with a debate performance that reflected fierce determination and precisely the kind of thorough preparation that Trump had skipped. Pence didn’t forget to bring up the Clinton Foundation. Or the “basket of deplorables,” a knife he twisted dexterously.

Never has he taken Trump to task or taken a stand for “basic human decency.” He seems to have reversed the order of those three adjectives in his identity. “Republican” now comes first and “Christian” last.

There is no surprise here. Pence was chosen as VP because he could be trusted to set aside his own expressed beliefs and position himself at the nexus of the vile universe of Donald Trump.

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