For a summit derided as a showdown between two affable boring suits, Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate turned out to be an acrimonious affair. If this was a pair of dads, they were the type who get into near fist-fights on the sidelines of Pop Warner games, not the friendly ones who cheer for both teams.
Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, dominated throughout the night. He was smooth, smiling, and unflappable. Tim Kaine, his Democratic counterpart, wasn’t able to break through, trying—often unsuccessfully—to cut in to rebut Pence, and to deliver a series of carefully prepared one-liners. But Pence, the governor of Indiana, seldom took the bait, grinning, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise, and shaking off Kaine’s attacks with a Reagan-style shrug. At one point he even copped the Gipper’s line: “There they go again,” he said.
If Pence was the victor on the stage, it’s less clear whether the Trump campaign can reap any large benefit from it. Clinton surely would have preferred a more agile performance from her running mate, but Kaine successfully brought up a long line of Trump’s most inflammatory comments, forcing Pence to reckon with and sometimes deny them, as well as to distance himself from Trump on Russia. These comments will be relitigated in the coming days, as will Pence’s shaky refutations. That means that while Pence triumphed on stage, the aftermath of the debate may help Clinton as much or more than it does Trump. Besides, vice-presidential debates rarely swing elections, especially when the heads of both tickets are such powerful personalities.
One reason for Pence’s success was that Kaine, a senator from Virginia, seemed for most of the debate to be uninterested in debating Pence. His strategy coming into the debate was plainly to do all he could to remind viewers of Donald Trump’s shortcomings. At the end of each litany, Kaine would offer some variation on the same tagline: “I can’t believe Governor Pence is willing to defend his running mate’s record …” Then Pence would respond, often declining to defend Trump, and turning attacks back on Kaine. Meanwhile, he inserted a series of casual barbs, telling Kaine twice that he looked forward to working with him when he returned to the Senate.
In policy terms, Pence demonstrated that he is a far more effective advocate for the Trump campaign’s proposals than the nominee himself is. Pence worked to lash Hillary Clinton to the foreign policy of the Obama administration. He accused Clinton of bad-mouthing police, both during the first presidential debate and elsewhere. “I just think what we ought to do is we ought to stop seizing on these moments of tragedy,” Pence said. “Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit bias every time tragedy occurs.” He managed to inject a degree of coherence into an economic plan that Trump has not achieved.
One of the stranger exchanges came in the final third of the debate, as Pence provided an alternate-universe idea of what a Republican ticket might look like. He attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “small” man, and argued that the United States must show strength to prevent Russian expansionism. His confidently stated argument was directly at odds with much of what Trump has said, praising Putin’s leadership, suggesting Russia had not annexed Crimea, and suggesting the U.S. should pull back from allies. Kaine eagerly pointed this out, reciting a string of Trump’s statements about Russia. Pence simply denied, falsely, that Trump had made many of the statements.
That was emblematic of the evening. Kaine mounted prepared attacks on Trump—the lawyerly, bullet-pointed paragraphs landing, the canned one-liners falling flat—and then challenged Pence to defend his running mate. Pence would accuse Clinton and Kaine of running an insult-based campaign, promise that he would defend Trump, and then quickly change the subject. That points to Pence’s problem: Though he showed himself a better, more natural debater, he still has to defend the set of policy priorities that Trump has laid out. In some cases that worked better than others, as with the economic proposal, but in others, he had a tougher task. Kaine repeatedly demanded to know why Trump would not release his taxes, and Pence never offered a defense.
It wasn’t just the taxes. Kaine ran through all the greatest hits: Trump’s “rapists” line about Mexicans, his attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, his insults against women, his ridicule of John McCain for being captured, and so on. Pence repeatedly denied that Trump said things he said publicly and managed to seem genuinely affronted that Kaine would mention Trump’s past statements, labeling it evidence of Clinton’s “insult-driven campaign.” Pence’s flat denials seemed to catch Kaine off guard. Pence mocked Kaine for preparing for the debate, just as Donald Trump had tried against Hillary Clinton, but to much greater effect. Kaine, after all, often sounded like he was reciting his lines.
The debate began with several bitter exchanges. Kaine began interrupting early on, perhaps trying to throw Pence off as Joe Biden did to Paul Ryan four years ago. Within minutes, the two men were talking over each other repeatedly, drawing a rebuke from moderator Elaine Quijano. She was a disappearing presence on the stage, asking a series of largely open-ended questions but not doing much to corral the candidates. Pence was much more adept at taking advantage of that, calmly finishing his answers, speaking over Quijano and Kaine and getting his licks in.
The debate wasn’t really boring, per se, as it had been predicted, and it certainly wasn’t friendly. But it wasn’t especially revelatory, either. Other than Pence’s strikingly difference Trump on Russia, and one memorably ribald line toward the end (“you whipped out that Mexican thing again”), the debate covered little new ground. Pence can’t do much to reverse the things Trump has already said, but he showed that a talented debater can smooth them out a bit.
—David A. Graham