Vice presidents don’t matter. Yes, Lyndon Johnson had to step in when Kennedy was assassinated. Spiro Agnew had to step in when Nixon resigned – no, wait. Gerald Ford had to step in. Agnew had resigned after he had pled no-contest to those bribery and corruption charges. But those were exceptions. Dan Quayle was George H. W. Bush’s vice president, and a bit of an idiot, and no one cared, and then he was gone. Al Gore was Bill Clinton’s vice president, for all the good it did him. Where’s he now? And Dick Cheney doesn’t count. He was pretty much the acting president all along, because George W. Bush was a bit of an idiot. Joe Biden is the best model, a pleasant fellow who hangs around with the president, offering what insight he has, but who fades into the woodwork, by design. The job is ill-defined. It really doesn’t matter.
That’s why this year’s vice-presidential debate really didn’t matter. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both oversized personalities, each with unprecedented low approval ratings, and one of those two will be president. They matter. Those they drag along with them don’t. Still, this year’s sole vice-presidential debate – no one ever asked for more than one – was surprisingly feisty:
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence sought to stabilize the Republican ticket by accusing his Democratic opponents of the same kind of insults and raw partisanship that have been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s candidacy as he faced off against Sen. Tim Kaine here Tuesday night in a combative and at times grating vice-presidential debate.
With Trump reeling from self-inflicted controversies at a critical juncture in the campaign, Pence projected a steadier temperament than Trump and largely ducked Kaine’s demands to answer for the GOP nominee’s incendiary actions and statements.
But Pence made numerous statements that conflicted with positions taken by Trump. He suggested that Trump would not immediately deport all undocumented immigrants, and that he believes military action is warranted to help the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, and that Russia is a dangerous country that the United States must deal with aggressively.
In short, he decided to be the candidate that Donald Trump was supposed to be in the first place, even if that was a bit awkward:
Pence on several instances denied statements that Trump had made in the past including his assertion that NATO is “obsolete” and his suggestion that Putin is a “stronger” leader than President Obama. Pence repeatedly accused Kaine and Clinton of running “an insult-driven campaign.”
Kaine’s retort: “I’m just saying facts about your running mate.”
He was, but Mike Pence ignored him:
Pence injected a number of traditional conservative priorities – abortion, taxes and entitlements – to help reassure Republicans who have misgivings about Trump’s populist agenda, which they see as out of step with GOP orthodoxy.
Kaine and Pence sparred vigorously over Trump’s avowed affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pence called Putin “a small, bullying leader,” but Kaine repeatedly reminded viewers that Trump has praised the Russian’s leadership style.
“If you mistake leadership for dictatorship,” Kaine said, “you can’t be commander in chief.”
Pence smiled. He wasn’t taking the bait, even if Kaine did his best to bait him:
Kaine sought to put Pence on the defensive by bringing up Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants, dismissive comments about prisoners of war and years of falsely questioning President Obama’s birthplace.
“If you want to have a society where people are respected or respect laws, you can’t have a person at the top who demeans every group he talks about,” Kaine said.
Kaine repeatedly mentioned Trump’s comments in his 2015 campaign announcement speech that some Mexicans were “rapists” and “criminals.”
“Senator, you whipped out that Mexican thing again,” Pence said.
Kaine countered, “Can you defend it?”
“I couldn’t be more proud to be standing with Donald Trump,” Pence said.
He was impervious, and Matthew Yglesias explains that this may have been on purpose:
Republican Party elected officials in contested races around the country have been grappling with a basic but profound issue all year – how do you stand up for the GOP and conservative principles and against Hillary Clinton without getting sucked into defending every crazy, offensive, or weird thing that Donald Trump said? It can be a tough line to walk…
Debating Tim Kaine Tuesday night, Mike Pence taught a master class in how it’s done. Every time Kaine attacked, Pence parried and deftly shifted the conversation to something else entirely.
Mike Pence was showing how it’s done:
When Kaine demanded that Pence defend Trump’s secrecy on his taxes, Pence ducked and talked about how low taxes are good for economic growth. When Kaine offered an extended list of Trump insults that he said he couldn’t believe Pence would defend, Pence didn’t defend them – he pivoted to complaining about Clinton and the “basket of deplorables.” Pence was tight, disciplined, and focused on his talking points. He never took the bait, never let himself get dragged into unfavorable terrain, and simply ignored subjects he didn’t want to discuss.
It was a genuinely bravura performance, one that a passel of GOP senators and Congress members running in tough races ought to study. The problem is Trump is at the top of the ticket.
Well, that is a problem, given this from Kaine:
Donald Trump cannot start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot. He does not have a plan. He said “I have a secret plan,” and then he said, “I know more than all the generals about ISIL,” and finally he said “I am going to fire all the generals.” He does not have a plan. He trash talks the military, John McCain is no hero, the generals need to be fired, I know more than them. NATO is obsolete.
And third, he loves dictators. He has a personal Mount Rushmore of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Saddam Hussein. He believes – Donald Trump believes that the world will be safer if more nations have nuclear weapons. He said Saudi Arabia should get them, Japan should get them, and Korea should get them.
When he was confronted with this, he said “Go ahead, folks, enjoy yourselves.” I would like Gov. Pence to say what is so enjoyable or comical about nuclear war.
Pence simply could not and would not defend any of this. Instead, he tried to deflect, saying, “That had a lot of creative lines in it.”
Kaine pressed again: “See if you can defend any of it.”
Pence pivoted into a generic conservative attack on Obama’s foreign policy.
And that was clear and concise:
I want to give this president credit for bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, but the truth is, he led al-Qaeda. The primary threat today is ISIS. Because Hillary Clinton failed to renegotiate a forces agreement that would have allowed some American combat troops to remain in Iraq and secure the hard-fought gains that the American soldier has won, ISIS was able to be literally conjured up out of the desert, and it has overrun vast areas. My heart breaks for the likes of Corporal Lebowski. He fought hard, through some of the most difficult days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure the nation. That nation was secured in 2009.
Because Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama failed to provide a status of forces agreement and leave sufficient forces, we are back at war. We are back at war in Iraq and – I tell her we’re never going to forget her son.
It was a deftly executed move. And while the substance of the critique is somewhat unfair, it’s not crazy. The Obama administration’s attempted withdrawal from Iraq pretty clearly has not worked out nearly as well as it hoped.
But Pence utterly failed to take up Kaine’s challenge to defend Trump’s affection for Putin, dislike of NATO, or willingness to entertain nuclear proliferation. Pence simply shrugged off the entire reality of Trump’s 2016 campaign and slammed Obama, Clinton, and Kaine as soft on Russia – a smooth extension of the foreign policy messages of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
Pence won this, or he didn’t:
If Kaine and Pence had been debating for an Ohio Senate seat, any fair-minded person would have to conclude that Pence won in a landslide. He was focused on his key points, while Kaine was focused on dragging the conversation into personal attacks on a man who wasn’t even standing on the stage.
The problem, obviously, is that they aren’t running for an Ohio Senate seat.
They’re running for vice president. Or at least Tim Kaine is. That’s why he loyally defended Clinton when Pence hit the Clinton Foundation issue instead of pivoting away to his own talking points. He played the somewhat awkward role of loyal number two. Pence, by contrast, focused on making Mike Pence look good and happily left Trump’s eccentricities on the cutting board.
That was the whole idea:
For Republicans sitting at home, Pence’s largely effective performance should serve as a powerful reminder that a generic Republican candidate would probably win the 2016 election. Trump, by contrast, is losing currently, has been losing from the beginning, and probably will lose in the end.
When he does, Republicans will be searching for their next nominee. When they do, they’ll see that Pence – the guy I used to think they would pick for 2016 – doesn’t quite have the pizzazz or superstar quality of a Donald Trump, but he’s also a much better, more focused, more disciplined, less crazy politician. The kind of guy who could actually win.
That was Pence’s message to Republicans – Trump isn’t worth defending, Ted Cruz is still a nasty mean little man, and Mike Pence is your glorious future.
That may have been what was going on, but Andrew Sullivan saw this:
It seems clear to me that this was a huge win for Trump-Pence. Some are arguing that Pence’s inability to defend Trump on countless issues will hurt him. He sure was simply denying some things that are categorically true. And maybe the Clinton camp will be able to construct some future attack ads that will reveal this.
But what Trump needs desperately is someone to assure the nervous middle that there will be a grown-up in the Oval Office next to the tantrum-throwing toddler. It was very effective, I’d say, on that count, especially with Republican voters who were looking for reassurance.
As for Kaine, I don’t think he appeared presidential; he failed to defend the past eight years clearly and aggressively enough; he did nothing to rouse the Obama coalition. He seemed like a classic politician. He was strong on abortion at the end, and on his faith. He seems like a hugely decent guy – but he missed a few moments to really expose Trump’s extremism the way he needed to.
I hope I’m wrong. And I’m jumpy about this because I believe this is indeed a national emergency and any failure to expose the radical danger that Trump poses to civil and global peace, and to liberal democracy itself, is an unforgivable lapse. Kaine improved toward the end. I suspect he won back many voters in the last half hour.
But that might not have been enough, although Sullivan offers this:
It was refreshing, I have to say, to hear an old-school Republican candidate on the stage. I almost miss them at this point. Do you think Republican voters will simply decide to wait for Pence in 2020? That’s the hope I have. I’m clinging to every hope I can.
Sullivan may not be alone in that. Pence had decided to be the candidate that Donald Trump was supposed to be in the first place. That worked, although Kevin Drum saw things differently:
This was a more normal debate than last week’s, which makes it harder to call. Tim Kaine was very much the aggressor, interrupting frequently and demanding that Pence defend the most egregious of Donald Trump’s outbursts. Pence was calmer, and simply said that Trump had never said the stuff Kaine accused him of saying. This wasn’t true, but there’s no telling if the audience at home believed him anyway. In the future, perhaps candidates should be allowed to have a series of video clips they’re allowed to display during their answers.
On style, then, Pence probably did better.
On substance, however, this one went to Kaine:
Trump really did say all the stuff Kaine accused him of, but Pence simply refused to engage with it. Trump did casually say he didn’t care much if other countries got nukes. Trump did say that women who get abortions should be punished. Trump’s tax plan does include huge cuts for millionaires. Trump (and Pence) has called Vladimir Putin a better leader than Obama. Trump has trash talked the military. And he did call NATO obsolete and suggest he might not bother defending the Baltics if Russia invaded them.
But that may not matter:
Neither Pence nor Kaine said anything terrible, and neither landed a killing blow. That means that partisanship probably weighs most heavily here, but I’d give the debate to Kaine anyway. The post-debate commentary is going to make it clear that Kaine was mostly accurate about Trump, and that Pence simply wasn’t willing or able to defend him. I don’t know if that will be devastating for Pence, but it won’t make him look good.
That might depend on who you ask, and Frank Bruni offers this:
Back when Mike Pence hosted a talk radio show in the 1990s, he described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
For much of Tuesday night, he was like Forrest Gump on chamomile, squarely and steadily plodding forward, seldom tugged from his talking points and never particularly rattled. His expression was a sort of upbeat blur. His voice was a lulling drone.
It wasn’t exactly a vivid performance, but it was an eerily consistent one, and it answered the question of how a man who supposedly prides himself on his virtue defends a running mate who is often bereft of it. He sets his jaw. He slows his pulse. He practices a bemused chuckle, perfects deafness to anything he prefers not to hear and purges from his memory anything he doesn’t want to own.
That included the whole grotesque cornucopia of Donald Trump’s slurs and bad behavior, which Tim Kaine had studied up on exhaustively, knew by heart and kept throwing at Pence, pressing for the barest glimmer of shame or the slightest hint of apology. It was pointless – a point that Kaine himself made about an hour into this exercise in futility.
Still, Pence did his job:
One of Pence’s assignments was to counter Trump’s childish excitability with adult calm, which he did almost flawlessly. Another of his assignments was to make Trump palatable to wavering Americans by communicating that Trump was positively yummy to him. He aced that, too, meaning that he’s either a phenomenally talented actor or a master of self-deception.
Bruni was not impressed, but Josh Marshall says the most salient point is that there were two debates happening on that stage:
The two debates were so distinct that if I squinted and looked from one angle I could almost see a straight Kaine v Pence presidential debate happening, one in which Donald Trump didn’t even exist. Mike Pence is not a terribly impressive politician. But in this debate, when it came to hitting the standard GOP political and policy points, he held up pretty nicely. Kaine was solid too. But maybe my expectations were a bit higher for him. He struggled a bit in the first fifteen minutes. He interrupted a lot and felt a bit preprogrammed in the early part of the debate when he was talking about policy issues. But big picture – in this alternate universe Kaine v Pence face-off where Donald Trump didn’t exist – Kaine and Pence were fairly evenly matched.
But there was this wholly separate debate happening at the same time that was entirely about Donald Trump. And it was largely a monologue by Tim Kaine.
Again, Kaine struggled a bit in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the debate. But over the rest of it he had these runs where he hit more or less every point the Clinton camp could have possibly wished for. He did that on taxes; he did that on immigration and racism; he did it on birtherism; he did it on Russia ties; he did it on nuclear proliferation.
Mike Pence didn’t participate in that second debate:
Pence’s reactions were fascinating. He sort of wearily shook his head in response. In other cases, he flatly denied things we all saw happen. He defended his boss, kinda. But he just didn’t seem to have his heart in it. To some degree, what could Pence say? He had a tough job in defending Trump on many of these points. But realizing how tough it would be he just didn’t try.
Ah, but there were those moments when the two debates intersected:
Pence embraced the Russia-hawk position that Republicans have been pushing, especially in presidential campaigns, for a decade: Georgia, the Ukraine, American weakness, Russian aggression. He articulated the argument well. He could have been John McCain’s running mate there, or Mitt Romney’s. But he’s Donald Trump’s running mate. And with Trump having repeatedly praised Putin, knocked NATO, threatened NATO allies and all the rest, Pence’s Russia-hawk runs sounded both powerful and ridiculous. Nor was this the only issue where this happened. On various other points, it was hard to tell whether Pence realized he was running with Donald Trump since his arguments frequently took little cognizance of anything Trump has said or most of the positions he’s espoused.
And on the other side:
Kaine himself didn’t always come off as well as I might have expected. But he did great for his running mate, sometimes by defending Clinton in ways that are difficult for her to do herself – but far more often by reading out crate-loads of opposition research on Trump and simply reminding people of all the stuff he’s said. How many times did he say Trump’s sons say they get a lot of their money from Russia? At least twice, maybe three times. Pence, on the other hand, came off fairly well in the Kaine v Pence debate… But he left his running mate all but undefended. In some cases, maybe most cases, Pence was simply hard-pressed to defend things that were simply indefensible. But, as I’ve said, he didn’t seem to have his heart in it. He tossed out some obligatory denials, shook his head wearily and that was about it.
People don’t vote for vice-presidential candidates. Especially in this campaign, with two presidential candidates whose public personas loom so large over the political nation, the veeps barely hold any of the spotlight.
This is about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Kaine landed lots of punches on Donald Trump, while Pence left Trump largely undefended. Pence got in very few hits on Clinton, but not many. Whether Pence made a tacit decision to abandon his boss or simply wasn’t up to the challenge I don’t know. But the net effect was that he let Kaine land punch after punch on Trump, largely undefended. That’s really all that matters.
Vice presidents don’t matter. What matters here is that Pence was showing Trump how it’s done – stay calm – don’t take the bait. When your opponent points out something you had said that’s totally absurd and dangerous, and you actually said it, over and over, on record, talk about something else. Stop being defensive. In short, be someone else.
That’s how it’s done, and of course Trump can’t do that. He’s been who he is for seventy years, and he’s proud of it. That, however, leaves a secondary message for Republicans. They nominated the wrong guy. Maybe Kaine did win this debate after all.