There’s no question that in last night’s vice presidential debate, Virginia senator Tim Kaine missed an opportunity to slam Indiana governor Mike Pence on the issue that put Pence, infamously, at the center of national attention in 2015: his signing of a draconian anti-LGBT “religious liberty’ bill into law. Kaine even mentioned persecution of LGBT people under Vladimir Putin in Russia in criticizing both Donald Trump’s and Pence’s embrace of the authoritarian leader, but didn’t draw the direct line to Pence and the bill in Indiana he signed that drew harsh condemnation from big business and forced Pence to soften the ugly law somewhat.
But the bulk of the responsibility here goes to moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS, who is generally seen to have done a poor job at maintaining control of this debate. Sure, a debater is supposed to be skilled enough to simply insert important issues, pivot, and turn questions back on an opponent, as Hillary Clinton deftly did during the first presidential debate with Trump. Conservatives attacked moderator Lester Holt for not bringing up their pet issues, but most of those issues have been very visible and settled — like Benghazi and Clinton’s emails — and the responsibility was on Trump himself to remind the audience if he wanted to do so, and he did a terrible job.
But on the Religious Restoration Freedom Act in Indiana, which became an international news story in March of last year — in the news cycle for days as Pence became a laughingstock on national television unable to defend the law — we’ve seen scant coverage in this campaign, with Pence rarely asked about it and much of the media hardly raising it. And yet, it’s a defining issue for him, and one that was built upon years of anti-LGBT attacks by Pence as a radio host and commentator and as member of Congress, where he even proposed cutting funding for AIDS and diverting the money to “ex-gay” therapy programs.
Here we had two men of with deep religious convictions — one who sees his faith as a call for equality (Kaine supports marriage equality and supports anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT people), and the other who sees it as a bludgeoning tool to persecute a minority group. There couldn’t be a more clear distinction on something so prominent and it was just too big for Quijano to ignore. Furthermore, Trump has in fact supported much of Pence’s anti-LGBT agenda — consistently opposed to marriage equality for years, and recently solidifying his support for the anti-LGBT First Amendment Defense Act — and yet has been lazily portrayed in the media as “more accepting on gay issues” as Trump has tried to play it both ways.
This was an opportunity for the moderator to finally show the sharp contrast between these candidates on a civil rights issue of our time and draw Pence out as an extremist on the issue who has been embraced by Trump. To her credit, Quijano did this on the issue of abortion. But she failed on LGBT rights.