Life moves pretty fast, Ferris Bueller observed, and had he been a pundit, he might have added that narratives move even faster. It was just Tuesday night that Mike Pence was being declared the obvious winner of the vice-presidential debate. Scarcely 12 hours later, the story of the day is the huge gulf between what Pence said about Trump and what Trump actually says himself.
In The Washington Post, James Hohmann declares, “Pence wins, Trump loses.” Politico rustles up “6 things Trump definitely said that Pence claimed he didn’t.” According to some reports, Trump is angry that Pence upstaged him with a better performance. One reason for these reactions is that the Trump campaign is down, and when a candidate is down, pundits tend to analyze everything as bad for him.
More importantly, there’s the goofy spectacle of Pence denying things that everyone saw—and if they didn’t, could easily look up. When Chico Marx quipped, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” he was going for laughs, and Pence has elicited laughter, too. While Pence is sometimes said to be an outsider on the Trump campaign, an ambassador to the conservative movement, the tactic of simply denying reality is one he shares with Trump and other surrogates. Time and again, Trump has simply denied that he said things everyone heard, and his aides have followed suit. Pence happily did the same.
At one point in the debate, Democrat Tim Kaine delivered this set piece:
I just want to talk about the tone that's set from the top. Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He's called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting. I don't like saying that in front of my wife and my mother. He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a POW, and said he wasn't hero because he’d been captured. He said African-Americans are living in hell. And he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
Kaine’s litany featured a few moments of hyperbole and exaggeration—did Trump really call all Mexicans rapists and criminals? It may depend whether you focus on what he said explicitly, or what you think he meant to imply—but it’s basically all correct. None of these moments are obscure; each was covered heavily and is well-known.
In another peculiar moment, Pence attacked Barack Obama under the guise of attacking Vladimir Putin, saying that “the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America.” He went on to say that the U.S must project military strength globally. Trump, of course, has said much the opposite, questioning the value of American alliances, suggesting he would drop U.S. objections to the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, and repeatedly praising Putin. Pence himself said that it’s “inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” When Kaine tried to point this out, Pence falsely claimed he had never said such a thing.
Pence’s flat denials seemed to throw Kaine off balance during the debate, as he repeatedly called for Pence to defend the indefensible, and Pence simply refused to admit it had even happened. But with reality setting in, Pence’s strategy starts to look laughable.
Or does it? It’s easy to construct a case that Pence’s tack was the best one possible, and might actually work out well for him, especially depending on how you define “work.” Let’s posit that Pence was starting out with a tough hand: His running mate has made a long string of damaging and controversial comments, and Pence himself has often stood at odds with Trump’s positions in the past.
First, what happens on the stage likely matters more than the fact-checks that come later. There’s a much larger audience for the debate than there is for the fact-checks in Wednesday’s papers.
Second, insofar as debates matter—which evidence suggests is very little, and even less for vice-presidential debates—Tuesday night’s contest gives the Republican ticket a slight breather after more than a week of brutal headlines, many of them stoked by Trump’s insistence on turning mountains into molehills. It won’t change the polling momentum, but it might help with morale.
Third, thanks to the intense atmosphere of negative partisanship, there are few minds to be made up. Many voters have already committed to one candidate or the other and aren’t likely to change their minds. As for the undecideds, just sowing some doubt about the record can help Trump. In one ironic moment Tuesday night, Pence told Kaine, “This isn't the old days where you can just say stuff and people believe it.” On the contrary, however, it’s perhaps easier than ever to do that, thanks to a fractured political and media landscape.
Finally, Pence likely helped himself, both now and for his own political future, by avoiding being seen attempting to defend, say, Trump’s comments about John McCain. The Clinton campaign has used Trump’s own words as a centerpiece of its advertising strategy, reminding voters of all the things the Republican nominee has said. Pence would certainly rather not see an ad in which he defends the statement that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, either over the next month or else during a 2020 presidential run, should such a thing happen.
Pence’s denials may be risible, but it’s too early to conclude that they were a bad idea. The strategy may work out quite well for Mike Pence—even if it doesn’t end up doing much for Donald Trump.