He’s the adult in the room.
But Mike Pence is both much more and much less than that. His performance at the debate Wednesday night reveals what we’ve all known for a long time, but may have forgotten: the pre-Trump Republican party.
And Pence is that party incarnate, unifying the faux religiosity of the Bush administration, the inchoate cries for freedom of the Tea Party movement, and the smarm of using it all to sell out to noxious interests; the glue that holds it all together.
Take Pence’s defense of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Vice President cast that in terms of freedom of choice, saying that he and Trump simply believe that this is a free country, and that no crypto-commie is going to come in and impose “mandates” on the heartland.
“President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interests of their health,” Pence said. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates and not just mandates with the coronavirus, but a government takeover of health care.”
Of course, that doesn’t really work in a pandemic. The virus reveals that all of our actions are interconnected; one group of people in a city refusing to wear masks or socially distance can quickly cause the virus to spread to the rest.
But as a justification of selfish behavior, framing the argument in terms of freedom and the evildoers who hate it was pure, pre-Trump GOP.
The same goes for Pence’s shout-out to the Persecution of Christians in the United States.
One small blessing of the Trump administration has been the President’s obvious lack of interest or knowledge of anything remotely spiritual. Apart from a few ludicrous and disingenuous attempts to paint him as a shy believer, the religious right seems to understand that Trump is a tool for it to get the judges that it wants.
But you can’t say the same for Pence, who has the zeal of the convert after making the switch from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity while in college.
He used that to familiar ends during the debate, accusing Democrats of being intolerant of Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholicism (Biden is Catholic) and implying that the Democratic Party is somehow anti-Christian.
“We particularly hope we don’t see the kind of attacks on [Barrett]’s Christian faith that we saw before,” Pence said, clearly hoping that we do, in fact, see such attacks.
In keeping with his religious devotion, Pence also revealed himself during the debate to be remarkably insensate, as a fly perched itself on his hair shortly thereafter.
But what really delivers Pence as a figure walking astride history, out of the ashes of the 2016 Republican primary and into today, is the noxious positioning on matters of consequence that result.
The Vice President took a position on climate change that was remarkably similar to the Bush-era denial that global warming was even happening, and its focus on ill-defined, supposedly free market solutions.
“President Trump and I believe that the progress that we have made in a cleaner environment has been happening precisely because we have a strong free market economy,” Pence said. “We’ve done it through innovation, and through natural gas and fracking.”
He added to Harris that “the both of you repeatedly committed to abolishing fossil fuel and banning fracking.”
Of course, the point here is not that the Republican Party won’t act on climate change. That much is blindingly obvious.
Rather, it shows that the underlying reasons for that lack of action — utter commitment to specific, sectoral energy industry interests whose profits rely on a system that’s destroying the future — have stayed the same. And so too have the talking points deployed to support them.
In fact, what’s stayed the same with Pence is the whole package; selfishness justified in terms of freedom, stoking a victim complex around the country’s religious majority, and using it all to advance corporate interests no matter the cost.