Many political observers are expressing disappointment and frustration with the failure of the vice presidential debate moderator to ask Mike Pence about signing into law a "religious freedom" bill enabling anti-LGBT discrimination in Indiana, but White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest isn't among them.
In response to a Washington Blade inquiry about whether a question on the law would have highlighted Pence's extensive anti-LGBT record, Earnest said Wednesday he won't "second-guess the efforts" of debate moderator Elaine Quijano.
"She came prepared with a long list of very serious, direct questions for each of the candidates and I suspect, based on the sharpness of her questions, that that was almost certainly one of the questions that she had in her stack," Earnest said. "She probably just didn't get around to it."
Earnest added presidential debate moderators have "a very difficult job" and the responsibility to "be fair and ask tough questions, and it seems to me that's exactly what Ms. Quijano did last night."
Last year, Pence signed into law a measure that would have enabled businesses and individuals to deny services to LGBT people in the name of "religious freedom," propelling him to the national stage as he unsuccessfully sought to defend the law. Following outcry from LGBT advocates, business leaders as well as condemnation from the White HousePence was forced to sign a "fix" to the measure limiting its discriminatory impact.
Asked by the Blade whether voters should be reminded of Pence's anti-LGBT record regardless of whether or not the debate moderator posed a question about it, Earnest conceded such a question would have been fair because the records of candidates are "worthy of scrutiny."
"It certainly would have been a relevant and fair question to have been asked because his actions as governor should weigh on a decision that voters make, but ultimately, it'll be up to voters to decide how they factor that criteria into their decision," Earnest said.
Earnest said he's spoken out "with some rather sharp criticism" of the law, not only for its discriminatory impact, but for the economic harm it's caused the state. Although Pence likes to brag about the economic growth of Indiana under his tenure, the law cost the state an estimated $60 million.
"The business climate of Indiana does not benefit from laws that open up potential customers or employees to being discriminated against, and North Carolina has gotten some attention for the negative economic consequences of signing those bills into law," Earnest said.
Earnest said he recalls "vividly" a 2015 interview with Pence on ABC News in which he refused to say eight times whether the "religious freedom" law allowed discrimination against gay people, and attempted to defend the statute.
"He struggled mightily to do so in part because it's hard to make a case that's good for the state," Earnest said. "But again, in terms of what impact this has in terms of people's decision in the presidential election, people are going to have to weigh these factors for themselves. They're obviously a number of things to consider, but it certainly would be legitimate in the mind of the president for somebody to consider that aspect of Gov. Pence's record in determining whether or not to support the Republican ticket this fall."
A look on Twitter reveals LGBT advocates aren't as charitable as Earnest in their assessment of the absence of the question from the debate. Frustration over the omission was expressed by not only gay bloggers, but Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin:
"Before Trump picked him as his VP, @mike_pence was notorious for attacking LGBTQ people. But not 1 question about his hateful views tonight."
Griffin expounded on his objections to the lack of a question on Pence's anti-LGBT law in an email statement to the Washington Blade.
"Donald Trump's vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, has made anti-LGBTQ activism a cornerstone of his political career," Griffin said. "That was worthy of debate and discussion, but there wasn't a single question about his hateful views. The vast majority of fair-minded voters in this country deserve answers, and the debate was a missed opportunity to demand them."
CBS News didn't respond to the Washington Blade's request for comment Wednesday on why a question on Pence's anti-LGBT record or the "religious freedom" law weren't among those asked during the vice presidential debate.
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, shifted the blame to Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine for not bringing up the issue.
"In the absence of any specific question on RFRA from the moderator, one would have expected Kaine to make mention of it among his 70 interjections last night, but I guess he was too busy trying to remember the canned one-line zingers he was coached to deliver to focus on an issue that offered perhaps the greatest contrast between himself and Trump's running mate," Angelo said.
The Washington Blade has placed a call to the Clinton campaign to ask why Kainewho focused during the debate on attacking Trump, not Penceignored Pence's anti-LGBT law.
In the aftermath of the debate, LGBT organizations are declaring the upcoming town hall debate between Clinton and Trump must be a venue in which the first LGBT question is posed to the candidates.
Roddy Flynn, executive director of Equality PAC, said LGBT issues must be addressed in future debates to make up for the lack of attention to Pence's anti-LGBT record in the vice presidential forum.
"It was disappointing that Gov. Pence's extreme anti-LGBT record was not raised in last night's debate questions," Flynn said. "Gov. Pence has supported some of the most insidious anti-LGBT legislation in this country, designed to ensure that LGBT people can be turned away from shops, hotels, and restaurants and disallowing same-sex couples from adopting children. The kind of bigotry that the Trump/Pence ticket supports is out of line with American values and should have been a topic in the first two debates. We hope future debates will be more inclusive of the concerns of LGBT Americans."
Aisha Moodie-Mills, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, agreed the lack of a question on Pence's anti-LGBT record was "disappointing" and said future debates must expose those views.
"Pence opposes recognition of our relationships, opposes LGBT soldiers serving openly in the military, and opposes prohibiting restaurants and other businesses from refusing service to LGBT customers," Moodie-Mills said. "It is important the Trump campaign's extremist anti-LGBT positions be exposed in future debatesalong with its attacks on women, immigrants, Latinos, Muslims and veterans recovering from war. Their entire campaign has been built on fear and bigotry, and we believe voters will reject their attempts to turn back the clock on progress."