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Smoothing chaos to dullness was Pence's point

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice presidential debate on Wednesday at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.  Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

Before we get to his defense of the Trump administration, let's discuss Mike Pence's opposition to a wall.

There was something deeply pathetic about the vice president protesting a panel of plexiglass. The barriers had been proposed to protect Pence and his debate opponent, Sen. Kamala Harris, against hypothetical pathogens. The Trump campaign had insisted Pence did not need or want a wall for himself, but, "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it," a Pence spokeswoman told Politico.

This dig was meant to paint Harris as unreasonably fearful while obfuscating the reason plexiglass was considered in the first place. Pence had attended a maskless Rose Garden bonanza affiliated with COVID-19 diagnoses for at least 11 attendees, including President Donald Trump — who may have been infectious during last week's debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

In light of that, the vice president's anti-glass protestations were rather like a burglar breaking into a house and then mocking the owners for installing an alarm. But eventually an agreement was reached: Harris behind one transparent partition and Pence behind another 12 feet away.

Glass barriers in place, the vice president began to fog them up.

"You're entitled to your opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts," admonished the man speaking on behalf of a president who had, as of July, made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims, according to The Washington Post's Fact Checker.

"Stop playing politics with people's lives," lectured the man whose boss has implied that citizens' fealty to him is what should determine whether their states receive federal aid.

"When you say that what Americans have done over these last eight months hasn't worked, that's a great disservice to the sacrifices American people have made," scolded Pence, after Harris had not remotely said anything resembling that. What she had said, in fact, was that the administration's actions hadn't worked in halting the spread of a coronavirus pandemic that has now killed more than 200,000 Americans.

Pence never raised his voice. His brow was in perpetual solemn furrow. Whenever Harris spoke, his default reaction was to sadly, seriously shake his head. He regularly talked over moderator Susan Page, but he did even that with the smoothness of a practiced politician — unlike Trump, whose interruptions at last week's debate made him appear unhinged.

"It was much more civil," Wolf Blitzer appraised on CNN when the vice-presidential debate was finished.

"It was a regular debate, not an emotionally abusive session," Jake Tapper agreed.

Would we have expected anything else? Back in Pence's talk-radio days, he was billed as "Rush Limbaugh on decaf." In the current administration, his role is to make people feel OK about voting for Trump by counterbalancing Trump's bombast with comforting blandness. Pence would be in charge of battling coronavirus, he would be the bulwark, he would be the adult in the room.

He is all the fervor without the frenzy, all the rancor but in a respectable format. He might have the charisma of a bag of milk, but that was the point: Voters have liked that sort of thing. Pour him in a suit and he's palatable.

Harris, meanwhile, was a woman standing in for the 66% of women who, according to a recent poll, prefer Biden to Trump. She gave her fans plenty to talk about and screen-grab in the coming days. At least half a dozen of her phrases were instantly meme-worthy: "I am so glad we went through a little history lesson," which she said with a wide, pained smile, became a ready rejoinder for every woman who has ever felt talked-down-to.

But Pence's performance was the real magic trick. He was a man standing up to defend a status quo that has become indefensible. He took the Trump administration's shoddy pandemic response, its mountainous falsehoods, its outsize sense of grievance and its weird conspiracy theories, and he packaged them into something that bordered on normal, something that Blitzer could call "civil." He turned it into a gallon of Lactaid.

Pence, one presumes, did not want the plexiglass because the plexiglass might remind people that the nation was sick, in more ways than one. It wouldn't have been normal. And if things didn't seem normal, Mike Pence wouldn't be doing his job.

As it happened, the partitions onstage might not have been up to the task of blocking the virus. Epidemiologists who reviewed pictures of them told the New York Times they seemed ineffective.

And so Mike Pence's glass wall turned out to be mostly symbolic. Something nervous people had falsely hoped could provide protection against a dangerous virus. Something you can see right through.

Monica Hesse wrote this piece for The Washington Post.

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