One aspect of Vice President Mike Pence’s debate performance that won’t necessarily be caught by traditional fact-checking is how he constantly dodged hard questions. Although Pence is happy to lie, in many cases he instead just … didn’t answer, not even bothering with a politician’s traditional acknowledge-and-pivot.
The New York Times describes Pence’s answer to a question on preexisting conditions as “a master class in evasive rhetorical jujitsu.” In that one, he “ignored the question (the White House has not, in fact, come up with a plan), then launched into a long defense of his anti-abortion views and, for his dismount, demanded that Sen. Kamala Harris say if she supported a plan to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court.” But that wasn’t the only time Pence completely evaded an inconvenient question by any stretch.
He didn’t acknowledge the content of a question about whether voters deserve to know more about Donald Trump’s health, treating it instead as if he’d been offered well wishes to pass along to Trump. When asked: “Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?” He lied about Trump having “suspended all travel from China” and attacked former Vice President Joe Biden for having opposed that move. He bragged about “the greatest national mobilization since World War II.” He promised “literally 10s of millions of doses of a vaccine before the end of this year.” He accused Biden of plagiarism for a coronavirus response plan that, Pence claimed, looks like Trump’s. (This, too, is false.) At no point did he admit that yes, the U.S. death toll is extremely high by global standards, or try to account for this failure.
Again and again, Pence followed this pattern.
When ineffectual moderator Susan Page asked: “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?”
Pence began responding with “Thank you for the question, but I'll use a little bit of my time to respond to that very important key before.” He then offered 124 words on Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, before acting like he had been asked about whether he wanted to see Amy Coney Barrett confirmed to the Supreme Court: “Now with regard to the Supreme Court of the United States. Let me say, President Trump and I could not be more enthusiastic about the opportunity to see Amy Coney Barrett become Justice Amy Coney Barrett,” Pence said, and pivoted to attack Democrats for supposedly being opposed to Barrett because of her faith. At no point did he in any way approach the question of Roe v. Wade or whether his home state should or would ban all abortions. This is a man whose career has been defined in large part by his opposition to abortion under any circumstances, but when asked about it on his largest stage, he talked about everything but.
Pence also echoed Trump’s refusal to answer one extremely important question: “If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as Vice President? What would you personally do?”
Pence began with his confidence that he and Trump would win. That’s standard politician stuff—of course he wouldn’t start by accepting the premise that he’s going to lose. So, too, with his litany of supposed accomplishments of Team Trump. But. Pence then moved to attacking Democrats for supposedly undermining democracy first, through investigations of the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and through impeachment, a constitutional process that did, let’s not forget, draw a conviction vote from Republican Sen. Mitt Romney. This is Pence setting up a rationale for Trump to attack the results of the 2020 elections. When he attacked mail-in voting as creating a “massive opportunity for voter fraud,” he was echoing Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the results of the 2020 elections. And crucially, at no point did Pence say yes, he would accept a loss in this election. At no point did he answer the question about taking responsibility if Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power.
In one sense, Pence was just doing the thing he’d done throughout the debate: dodging. But on this question, a dodge is an answer. Pence’s answer is that if Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, he is along for the ride, kissing ass as he's been doing for the past four years.