CBS's John Dickerson asked Pence, "Do you agree?" And Pence had to draw a long, pronounced breath. Then, asked four times whether the United States is "morally superior" to Russia, Pence avoided and danced around the question before relenting (kind of):
DICKERSON: Do you think America is morally superior to Russia?PENCE: What — what you have in this new president is someone who is willing to, and is, in fact, engaging the world, including Russia, and saying, where can we find common interests that will advance the security of the American people, the peace and prosperity of the world? And he is determined to come at that in a new and renewed way.DICKERSON: But America morally superior to Russia — yes or no?PENCE: I believe that the ideals that America has stood for throughout our history represent the highest ideals of humankind.(CROSSTALK)PENCE: I was actually at — I was at Independence Hall yesterday. And I stood in the very room where the Constitution of the United States was crafted, the very building where the Declaration of Independence was held forth. Every American, including our president, represents that we uphold the highest ideals of the world.(CROSSTALK)DICKERSON: Shouldn't we be able to just say yes to that question, though?PENCE: I think it is, without question, John.DICKERSON: That America is morally superior to Russia?PENCE: That American ideals are — are superior to countries all across the world. But, again, what the president is determined to do, as someone who has spent a lifetime looking for deals, is to see if we can have a new relationship with Russia and other countries that advances the interests of America first and the peace and security of the world.
Suffice it to say, this is not an easy question right now for Pence — or anybody in the Trump administration. That's because American exceptionalism is at the core of the Republican Party's brand and identity in the 21st century. Squaring that with Trump's suggestion that the United States doesn't have the moral high ground on the killing of its opponents requires all the politician-speak one can muster — and ignoring pretty much everything you've ever said about why the United States is morally superior to the likes of Russia.
Just look at Pence's comments about both Russia and American exceptionalism in one speech back in February 2015 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC):
- "And as we gather here tonight a new iron curtain is descending down the spine of Europe as modern Russia seeks to redraw the map of Europe by force. Unlike the former Soviet Union that respected the strength of West, Putin's Russia ignores talk of sanctions, claims land, and supports rebels in Ukraine with impunity."
- "You either choose to view America as the shining city on the hill that inspires the best in all mankind, or you don’t."
- “The truth is you cannot command the respect of the world when you spend years apologizing to our enemies and abandoning our friends. Lecturing the American people about the Crusades while refusing to call Islamic extremism by name is an abdication of leadership."
The last comment in particular sticks out. Pence didn't like the equivalence between radical Islam today and the Crusades back in the 13th century. Now he's being asked to explain Trump's comparison of Putin and the American government.
And then there's the polling.
Back in 2015, the Pew Research Center asked whether the United States "stands above all others," was one of the greatest countries, or whether there were other countries that were better.
Fully 48 percent of conservative Republicans said it was the greatest country in the world, compared to 17 percent of liberal Democrats. Just 8 percent of conservative Republicans disagreed that the United States is at least "one of the greatest countries."
The GOP's embrace of patriotism and American exceptionalism ramped up after 9/11 and especially when Democrats began to question the war in Iraq. Some on the right fought back by arguing that this was unpatriotic or that war skeptics opposed U.S. troops.
And it was a fixture of the opposition to Barack Obama, whom Republicans regularly accused of "apologizing" for America. This was a major theme of Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign against Obama, and back in 2015, Rudy Giuliani accused Obama of believing "that American exceptionalism is no more exceptional than the exceptionalism of any other country in the world."
Giuliani is now a key Trump confidant, and Trump is espousing almost that exact view that Giuliani ascribed to Obama. And now the likes of Giuliani and Pence are left to explain it.