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LGBTQ advocates and allies are gnashing their teeth after Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate failed to raise any LGBTQ-specific issues, even though the topic would have provided a perfect contrast between President Trump and Pence’s record and the priorities of a Biden-Harris administration.
“It is inexcusable that questions related to specific LGBTQ issues have been absent from the last two debates,” Cathy Renna, the communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a statement. “From the epidemic of violence facing the trans community, particularly trans people of color, to recent disturbing signs coming from the Supreme Court that could threaten marriage equality, there is plenty to ask of the candidates.
“In the past 3 years we have seen countless policies that harm or attempt to erase LGBTQ people take an immeasurable toll on our community,” added Renna. “Asking all the candidates where they stand on a variety of LGBTQ issues and holding the current administration accountable for their actions is essential.”
Moderator Susan Page did ask about the Supreme Court, and Vice President Mike Pence attempted to corner Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris on whether Democrats intended to “stack” the court by naming additional justices to recoup at least two seats they feel were stolen by Republicans who refused to hold confirmations for Judge Merrick Garland in 2016 following the death of Antonin Scalia, and the vacant seat that was once held by longtime liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month following years of health complications.
Republicans are expected to confirm right-wing 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the seat, despite the close proximity to the upcoming presidential election. and the fact that filling the seat reveals Republicans’ hypocrisy by violating all of the “standards” and “norms” that they claimed to be standing by in 2016 when they blocked then-President Obama’s nomination of Garland — and some in the Republican-controlled Senate even threatened to hold the seat open for the entirety of Hillary Clinton’s term should she be elected president.
Yet Harris refused to answer the question on court-stacking, which Republicans have been obsessed with since some Democrats began raising the prospect of increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court. And she countered with a story about how former President Abraham Lincoln refused to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court in an election year, even when it would have benefitted his own party.
Harris then pivoted to the threat that a Barrett nomination poses to the fate of the Affordable Care Act and protections for pre-existing conditions, telling Americans: “If you have a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you.” But she did not raise LGBTQ issues and how those would be influenced by the Barrett confirmation, which would swing the court to a 6-3 Republican majority, despite Republicans only ever having won the popular vote once in the last seven presidential elections.
Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, chastised Page for not raising LGBTQ issues, despite Pence being known best for his socially conservative views and the passage of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was widely seen as an attack on LGBTQ individuals during his time as governor of Indiana.
“Susan Page had the opportunity to highlight the stark contrast between Mike Pence — the Vice President with the longest and most problematically anti-LGBTQ record in decades — and Kamala Harris, a true champion of our community,” David said in a statement. “Unfortunately for the 57 million Equality Voters and 11 million LGBTQ voters eager to hear from the candidates on these issues, Page did not ask any questions about the candidates’ LGBTQ records — a disservice to voters across the country.
“The LGBTQ community is in crisis, with increases in violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people, an economy in freefall disproportionately impacting LGBTQ people’s income and savings, and a partisan attack on access to health care for millions of people,” David continued. “We will continue our fight to ensure that our voices are heard and the issues affecting our community are addressed.”
David also criticized Pence for talking over both Harris and Page at different points during the debate. In the end, both vice presidential candidates spoke for about the same amount of time, but Pence appeared to be talking past his time limit — which, in retrospect, demonstrated his efficiency in lobbing attacks against Biden and Harris’s records. Frequently, the vice president returned to a series of standard-issue talking points on taxes and judicial nominations designed to rile up Republican base voters.
Pence also tried to cast a Biden-Harris administration as hostile to fracking — comments clearly aimed at voters in Western and Central Pennsylvania, where natural gas exploration employs about 26,000 people in the state. However, some Democrats, particularly progressives, were upset that Harris reiterated Biden’s opposition to a complete ban on fracking, noting that public polls show a majority of state residents actually oppose the practice.
For equality advocates, the failure of Page, or Harris, unprompted, to raise LGBTQ issues also denied the opportunity to link the Trump-Pence administration with some controversial anti-LGBTQ right-wing figures, including: Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the Alliance Defending Freedom; a right-wing legal organization that has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center; the anti-LGBTQ organization Focus on the Family; Richard Uihlein, a prominent donor and anti-trans activist; and Iowan activist Bob Vander Plaats, the CEO of The Family Leader, an organization that opposes recognition of LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage, and so-called “judicial activism,” often casting itself as a defender of “religious liberty.”
Throughout the debate, Pence and Harris sparred, though neither landed a knockout blow against the other or their respective running mates. Conservatives on social media were apoplectic about Harris’s avoidance of the question on court-stacking, while liberals were enraged that Pence dodged a question on reproductive rights and banning abortion.
Progressive Democrats raged on YouTube channels that Harris was not more forceful with Pence and did not repeatedly harp on the Trump-Pence administration’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic, accusing her of pulling punches, failing to educate viewers who do not pay close attention to politics of the administration’s incompetence, and depressing Democratic base voters by refusing to embrace progressive ideas or accepting right-wing framing of issues.
Following the debate, Republicans were casting Pence’s performance as a win for their side, noting that a Frank Luntz focus group of undecided voters described Harris as “condescending” and “abrasive.” Democrats, meanwhile, tried to argue the debate was a draw and did not shift the race in the president’s favor. A few liberals likely took comfort in a CNN snap poll of independent voters that showed Harris with a 59%-38% edge when asked to name a winner.
But the unofficial star of the night, at least according to the Twittersphere, was a fly that perched itself on Pence’s head for several minutes near the end of the debate. The fact that the presence of an insect overshadowed the substance of the debate’s final minutes not only reveals how inconsequential vice presidential debates typically are, but likely means that neither candidate was able to single-handedly upend the trajectory of the current race.
Pence’s siren calls to conservative independents who favor Republican policies on taxes, energy, and social issues may consolidate some “undecided” voters solidly behind the Trump-Pence banner and eat into the double-digit margins that Biden currently enjoys in public polls. But ultimately, the race for the White House — at least at this point — remains unchanged. And for LGBTQ voters and their allies, the debate is simply another a missed opportunity to raise awareness of issues affecting them and their families.
“This is the fourth missed chance in a nationally-televised forum of the general election to address any LGBTQ issues,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement. “VP Pence should have been called to account for his role in the administration’s 181 attacks against the LGBTQ community.
“LGBTQ voters may cast the deciding votes in this election and we need to be a part of the conversation. The moderators must include us,” added Ellis. “The candidates must acknowledge us. LGBTQ people deserve to know where the candidates stand on issues of life and death to us. We will continue to demand to be seen and heard.”
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