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Pence’s Handling of COVID Is Straight Out of the Christian Right Playbook

The tendency to lie to advance an agenda is not something Pence needed to learn from Trump.

Vice President Mike Pence participates in the vice presidential debate against Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hours before Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, one of the nation’s leading medical journals released a scathing and unprecedented plea for voters to reject Trump and Pence’s reelection bid, calling their leadership on COVID-19 “dangerously incompetent.”

Sen. Kamala Harris echoed that language in her strongest moments of the debate, ripping Pence for allowing more than 200,000 people to die of COVID. “The American people have had to sacrifice far too much because of the incompetence of this administration,” she said.

After Harris expressed skepticism about Trump’s efforts to expedite a vaccine without adequate approval or testing from the medical community, Pence said, “Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”

Though Pence directed that line toward Harris, it could more appropriately be recast as a description of the true nature of the Trump administration’s failures. These failures are not mere incompetence; they are part of an ideological project to consolidate power while attempting to deceive people into accepting the loss of their own rights, health and safety. And they are part of a playbook that Mike Pence has been developing for his entire career — one that he honed while attacking reproductive and LGBTQ rights in Indiana.

In its editorial Wednesday, The New England Journal of Medicine accused the Trump-Pence administration of eviscerating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sidelining experts at the National Institutes of Health and politicizing the Food and Drug Administration. That pattern — sideline the experts, ignore the science, politicize and defund the regulatory agencies — will sound all too familiar to those who follow the Christian Right. Since well before COVID, anti-choice politicians have eroded access to reproductive and LGBTQ health care by circulating lies about people seeking abortions because of a fetus’s race, spreading the outrageous myth that rape can’t result in pregnancy and pretending that medication abortions can be reversed. The Food and Drug Administration has made ideologically motivated decisions before, including imposing onerous “black box” restrictions like those used for narcotics on the abortion-inducing medication mifepristone, despite studies showing it is safe.

The tendency to lie to advance an agenda is not something Pence needed to learn from Trump. In 2001, when Pence first ran for Congress, he sided with tobacco and fossil fuel companies, claiming that “smoking doesn’t kill” and “global warming is a myth.” Fifteen years later, Pence again sided with toxic industry against the people in its path when he turned his back on residents of the lead-poisoned city of East Chicago, Indiana — most of whom are people of color. Years of lead and chemical production had left people living in a public housing complex around lead levels that were more than 200 times the federal safety threshold. In one of his final acts as governor, Pence rejected a plea from the city’s mayor imploring him to issue a state of emergency to help people sickened by lead and arsenic. He claimed the declaration was unnecessary “given the level of coordination among federal, state and local agencies.” But his successor, Republican Eric Holcomb, reversed that decision a month after taking office.

When Pence left Indiana after four years as governor, he had been poised to lose his reelection bid in part because of the unpopularity of his attacks on LGBTQ rights. In 2015, in a closed-door ceremony surrounded by figures from the Christian Right, Pence signed a law that enabled businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, a move he claimed was done to preserve “religious freedom.” A national outcry ensued, businesses threatened to boycott the state, and The Indianapolis Star ran a front page headline that read “Fix This Now,” prompting Pence to sign revisions to the law.

Under Pence’s leadership, Indiana also became a cautionary tale for the criminalization of pregnancy when Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison after prosecutors claimed she induced her own abortion; she was later released after a court overturned her feticide conviction. Pence signed one of the nation’s most extreme anti-choice laws, HEA 1337, which banned abortions motivated by fetal race, sex or genetic anomaly, and required burial or cremation of all miscarried or aborted fetuses.

Pence revealed his willingness to circulate misinformation and lies in the service of his extreme anti-choice agenda during the portion of the debate dedicated to the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth,” Pence falsely claimed. In reality abortion at the “moment of birth” isn’t abortion, it’s infanticide, which is illegal — and certainly not something Biden or Harris have supported. Biden actually supported the long-standing federal ban on public funding of abortion until last June, when mounting public pressure forced him to reverse his position.

Few people bear more responsibility for the catastrophic toll of COVID-19 in the United States than Mike Pence, who, as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, was charged with overseeing the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Instead, he gave false assurances that the administration was “winning the fight” against COVID-19 and pressed states to reopen. When he appointed Pence to the task force, Trump cited the vice president’s record on health care in Indiana. But as with much of Pence’s career, that record involved ignoring the experts and pursuing ideology at the expense of vulnerable people. As governor of Indiana, Pence oversaw the rollout of what The Atlantic called “the most conservative Medicaid expansion program in the country.” Hundreds of thousands of people lost health care coverage, never enrolled, or were shifted to a weaker plan because they failed to meet state requirements for paying premiums. The architect of this plan, Seema Verma, is now an administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and part of an administration that is attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic.

Perhaps the closest parallel to this pandemic that Pence faced while governor of Indiana was the outbreak of HIV due to drug usage in Scott County, where more than 200 people were infected in the town of Austin, which has a population of just 4,000. When the outbreak began in 2015, experts urged Pence to allow needle exchanges, but Pence again rejected science in favor of ideology, and refused. “Pence instead told people he was going to pray on what to do,” The Guardian reported. While he did so, dozens more people were confirmed to have the virus. Ultimately, Pence relented and approved the exchanges.

Despite his role as head of the Coronavirus Task Force, Pence has been widely seen as a buttoned-up puppet of the president’s — a “normal avatar of Trump,” as The Nation’s Jeet Heer described his performance in Wednesday’s debate. But Pence didn’t need Trump to show him how to pursue an agenda through deception. In this case, the goal is power, and it appears Pence will apply all of the tricks in his playbook in order to hold on to it.

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