First things first: No, Mike Pence’s atrocious record on LGBT rights didn’t come up during the vice-presidential debate.
Pence, the governor of Indiana, is best known to LGBT Americans for in 2015 signing into law that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics interpreted as providing legal cover for businesses and individuals to refuse service to same-sex couples, LGBT people in general, and anyone else who offended their religious beliefs. After widespread outcry against the law, legislators and Pence approved a “fix” to it so that it could ostensibly not be used to justify discrimination.
The Republican vice presidential nominee, who is also a former congressman, has consistently opposed marriage equality, LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes laws, and measures to prevent anti-LGBT job discrimination. His Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, is a supporter of all these causes.
LGBT people and allies in the audience may have been encouraged when, toward the end of Tuesday night’s debate at Longwood University in Virginia, moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News asked the candidates, both professed men of faith, “Can you discuss in detail a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and a public policy position?”
But Pence didn’t volunteer anything about his LGBT rights record, and indeed, the example he gave didn’t sound like a struggle. He said his evangelical Christian faith has led him to “stand with great compassion for the sanctity of life.” This has included signing into law a bill banning abortions sought because of fetal abnormalities and adding other restrictions on abortion; a federal judge has prevented it from going into effect.
This led to an exchange between the candidates about the positions held by the top of each party’s ticket. Kaine said he and Hillary Clinton support Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that said the option to have an abortion is a constitutional right and states can restrict it only in a very limited fashion. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has said women should be punished for having abortions, Kaine said.
Pence denied that Trump believes this — actually, Trump did say this year that there should be “some form of punishment,” then quickly walked it back. “He’s not a polished politician,” Pence said.
Kaine didn’t use the question to bring up LGBT rights either. His example of a conflict between his Roman Catholic faith and public policy was allowing executions to be carried out when he was governor of Virginia, even though both he and his church oppose the death penalty. The church is also opposed to abortion, while Kaine is pro-choice, and to marriage equality, which Kaine supports, but he didn’t mention that.
The debate saw a great deal of crosstalk between the candidates, with Kaine frequently challenging Pence on statements Trump has made, such as his assertion that many Mexican immigrants are criminals, his disparaging comments about women, and his embrace of the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible to be president — something Trump only recently disavowed. Kaine said Trump and Pence are running an “insult-driven campaign.”
Pence responded, “If Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn't have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables.” Kaine countered that Clinton apologized for that (specifically, she apologized for saying “half”), and that Trump has not apologized for any of his comments.
LGBT issues did come up when Kaine denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has praised as a strong leader. “He persecutes LGBT folks and journalists,” Kaine said. “If you don’t know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, then you got to go back to a fifth-grade civics class.” And Kaine used a swipe at the Clinton Foundation as reason to talk about the organization's vital work on HIV.
Kaine also got in many jabs at Trump because of the recent revelation that Trump paid no federal income tax for 1995 due to a business loss — and could have used that loss to avoid taxes for many years to come. Whether he has done so isn’t known, as he has refused to release any of his tax returns.
During last week’s presidential debate, which came before the report about the 1995 return, Clinton said maybe Trump was reluctant to release his tax information because he hadn’t paid taxes, and then Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.” Tuesday night, Kaine commented on this by saying, “So it’s smart not to pay for our military? It’s smart not to pay for veterans? It’s smart not to pay for teachers? And I guess all of us who do pay for those things, I guess we’re stupid.”
There were also exchanges about whose policies would be better for the U.S. economy. Clinton and Kaine want to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and increase the minimum wage; Trump and Pence support major cuts in taxes and business regulations, and oppose a minimum wage increase.
And there was talk about who’d be better at fighting terrorism, and the mass shooting by Omar Mateen at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando came up here, as one of Quijano’s examples of home-grown terrorism, along with the bombs planted in New York City’s heavily gay Chelsea neighborhood. Pence, though, used this as an opportunity to talk about immigration policy. Mateen, however, was U.S.-born. The suspect in the Chelsea bombings is an immigrant.
“Let’s make sure we’re putting the safety and security of the American people first instead of Hillary Clinton expanding the Syrian refugee program,” Pence said, and then Kaine put in, “Or instead of you violating the Constitution by blocking people based on their national origin rather than whether they’re dangerous.” A federal appeals court Monday found that Pence’s attempt to keep Syrian refugees out of Indiana was illegal.
The candidates further clashed on policy for other immigrants — Trump has vowed to deport all undocumented immigrants from the U.S., while Clinton favors a path to citizenship for some of them. And Pence and Kaine each touted their candidate as the best to handle foreign policy, with Kaine saying early in the debate that he and his wife have a son in the Marine Corps, and “the thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death.”
The public will have a chance to evaluate the commander in chief candidates again when Trump and Clinton debate Sunday at Washington University in St. Louis, then October 19 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.