The Indirect Trap

There’s always a reassessment. The Iraq war seemed like a good idea at the time, to some, but now no one thinks it was, not even Republicans. That took a few years to settle in – we did get rid of Saddam Hussein – but sometimes a win is really a loss. The same thing applies to many a marriage. Years later, the man or the woman wonders what the hell they were thinking. John Barrymore put it this way – “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.”

Mike Pence is now the haddock. He “won” the vice-presidential debate – everyone agrees on that – but he may have lost it, because of the way he won it. He calmly and flawlessly presented total nonsense, and that was impressive, but even the initial accounts of the debate pointed out the nonsense. Kevin Drum notes these:

Washington Post: More effectively than any Trump surrogate up to now, Pence simply denied – and denied, and denied, and denied – that someone as essentially good as Donald Trump could hold the views that cameras had recorded him holding.

New York Times on Kaine’s charge that Pence and Trump have praised Vladimir Putin: “We haven’t,” Mr. Pence protested, even though he himself said on CNN last month that Mr. Putin was “a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” But Mr. Pence during the debate flatly denied making that remark.

Los Angeles Times: [Pence] smoothly, and without a hint of embarrassment, denied that Trump had said things Trump had said.

Guardian: Mostly Pence flatly denied that Trump had made controversial statements and, instead of defending the candidate, resorted to the strategy of gaslighting, by repeatedly challenging known facts to manipulate the truth.

Politico: The main tenet of [Pence’s] strategy was to deny that Trump ever said these things to begin with – despite the fact that many of the statements were both real and a part of the public record.

McClatchy: During the few moments he did address statements Trump made Pence denied them or even misstated them. “No he hasn’t,” he said repeatedly.

Drum is puzzled by this:

So here’s where we are: Pretty much everyone watching the debate agreed that Mike Pence lied over and over about simple stuff that’s on tape and easily verified. And yet pretty much everyone also agreed that he won the debate. Does anyone see the problem here?

Drum also adds this:

The general consensus seems to be that Tim Kaine had the facts on his side; Mike Pence repeatedly refused to defend Donald Trump; and Kaine did a good job of keeping Trump’s cretinism front and center. But Pence was calmer, and therefore he won.

CNN’s instant poll bears this out. Respondents thought Kaine defended his boss better; was more knowledgeable; and attacked more.

But! Mike Pence was judged more likeable, and therefore he won the debate 48-42 percent. The American public has spoken: they’d rather have a beer with Mike Pence, and that makes him the winner. Some things never change.

On the bright side, though, we will always have Mike Pence complaining that Kaine had “whipped out that Mexican thing again.”

Drum is referring to this:

After Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, again brought up Donald Trump’s provocative statements on immigration – including during his announcement speech when he said that some of the immigrants Mexico was sending were “rapists” and were “bringing crime” – Pence had apparently had enough.

“Senator, you whipped out that Mexican thing again,” the Indiana governor said.

Pence might not have realized everyone immediately thought of that scene from Blazing Saddles – the new black sheriff says “Excuse me while I whip this out” and the white women scream – it was just his paperwork – but that wasn’t the problem:

Within moments, was set up, redirecting to VL [Voto Latino] Action Network’s voter information and registration page. The Clinton campaign wasn’t far behind, getting set up and redirected to And Twitter went wild with the hashtag #ThatMexicanThing.

There were thousands of proud and defiant tweets and Gabe Ortíz with When We Turned #ThatMexicanThing into Stories of Our Patriotism and Resilience – so Pence didn’t win that one. Trump wasn’t going to win the Hispanic vote anyway. Now, thanks to Mike Pence, he may win none of it. Oops.

This is not winning, nor was the rest of it, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues here:

The vice presidential debate does not move votes, and will not move votes. People commit to parties, and then they commit to the top of the ticket. Almost no one backs a ticket (or switches sides) because of the running mate. This fact – that these debates, in a real sense, don’t matter – makes it tempting to treat them as pure political theater, judged on style and poise.

By that standard, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence won the vice presidential debate with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, full stop.

Or not:

Pence, who worked in conservative talk radio before moving to electoral politics, was calm, smooth, and steady. He was an effective advocate for conservative ideology, a polished voice for lower taxes, less redistribution, a more aggressive posture on the global stage (against Russia especially), and new restrictions on abortion. Against Kaine – who interrupted, cross-talked, and spoke in a rapid, hurried clip – Pence looked commanding, almost presidential. And on Twitter, pundits and observers began immediate speculation about the vice presidential nominee’s prospects for 2020, should Donald Trump lose the election for president.

But politics isn’t pure theater, and we shouldn’t use that standard. Who performed better is less important than whether the candidates were honest and truthful. Whether Kaine or Pence was polished and polite matters less than whether they gave a fair and good-faith accounting of themselves and their politics to the public. And by that standard, Mike Pence was a clear and abysmal failure.

That depends on your perspective. Politics is pure theater in the media, every day, but there is reality:

We don’t know Pence’s mental state. Maybe he wasn’t lying. Maybe he had never heard Trump’s words or statements. But we do know that Pence is a living, breathing person with a vested stake in this presidential election. And we know that, since the summer, he has been an intimate part of the Republican campaign, following Trump’s behavior and accounting for his missteps. We know that, before he was picked for the ticket, Pence criticized Trump for some of the rhetoric he now denies (specifically, the ban on Muslim entry to the United States), and we know that Pence himself said words that he later denied to Tim Kaine and the debate audience.

Mike Pence was better at this debate. He was smoother, more polished. More confident. And for 90 minutes, he used that polish and confidence to deny Trump’s rhetoric and behavior and gaslight the country that has borne witness to them.

To call this winning is to act as if nothing matters. But vice presidents stand a real chance of sitting in the Oval Office. It matters. If Pence “won,” it’s because he denied the truth even existed.

And it worked, and Bouie thinks it will work in the future:

Maybe this was a preview of what will happen if the Republican nominee loses his race for the presidency. There won’t be recriminations or questions. The GOP won’t have to answer for anything. Instead, Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – and even Mike Pence – will shake their heads and give looks of smarmy incredulity and pretend as if nothing happened, as if they didn’t support a white nationalist’s bid for the world’s most important elected office.

That’s possible, or even likely, and Jonathan Chait adds detail:

Among political professionals and media, it is a settled fact that, in televised debates, appearance matters more than substance. Think of the legend of polished John F. Kennedy defeating sweaty-but-experienced Richard Nixon, or Al Gore annoying America with his incessantly nerdish assaults on good ol’ George Dubya Bush. It was a version of this belief that led conventional wisdom to the immediate conclusion that Mike Pence won his debate against Tim Kaine. Certainly, by theater standards, Pence outperformed his adversary. A polished talk-show host by training, Pence spoke in calm, measured tones and swatted away Kaine’s rapid-fire attacks on his running mate with genial head-shaking or confident-sounding denials.

And people bought it:

“Mike Pence’s cool-headed performance on Tuesday night’s debate stage has Republicans wistful that the Indiana governor is not their nominee and hopeful that Pence’s prowess will rub off on Donald Trump before Sunday’s crucial rematch with Hillary Clinton,” reported Politico’s Ben Schreckinger. “More disciplined than Trump, and with a baritone voice that evoked a sense of seriousness, Pence battled back,” observed the Washington Post’s Dan Balz.

One might complain with the voters for prioritizing surface appearance over substance. One might also complain with the news media for internalizing voters’ superficiality and feeding it back to them as theater criticism rather than sorting out the underlying claims. But the fact remains that the rules are the rules, and as they exist, there is usually little penalty for lying incessantly as long as you do it with proper body language and a reassuringly manly baritone.

Chait, however, would carve out an exception:

You should not lie about things that can be easily disproven with short video clips. So, if Pence had simply insisted that Donald Trump’s tax plan would balance the budget and mostly help the middle class, and that he would allow coal plants to spring up everywhere without impacting the climate, and that his plan would crack down on Wall Street, he’d have walked away the undisputed winner. Instead, Pence claimed over and over again that his running mate had never said the things that Tim Kaine was quoting verbatim. It was all too easy for the Hillary Clinton campaign to respond with this devastating video.

That video simply lines up the clips of Mike Pence saying that Trump never said this or that, with the clips of Trump saying exactly what Pence had said that Trump had never said. It was too damned easy. It was the beginning of the reassessment:

The way debates work is that they play out over time, with an initial impression usually overwhelmed by subsequent messages rippling through the media. In this case, whatever small gains Pence made are likely to be canceled out by days of him looking ridiculous. Lying: It usually works! But not always.

That would mean that Kaine won this thing, but that might not be what Kaine was after. Kaine might have been setting a trap for the Trump folks. Let them win this one on style. Trap them on the larger issue. Josh Marshall sees that:

With the dawn of a new day we can see one thing clearly, Tim Kaine went into the debate with one mission: force a week of rehashing and re-litigation of basically every lie, crazy idea and toxic rant we’ve heard from Donald Trump over the last year and a half…

The fact that Pence got frustrated and created the “Mexican Thing” meme is just an additional benefit for the Clinton campaign.

That is, lose the debate, but force a week of discussion of every Trump lie, crazy idea and toxic rant out there. Mike did fine. That was not the real issue:

Mike Pence has a decent amount to be happy about this morning. There are things conservatives can take heart from – largely finding someone in the campaign to feel good about. But none of them are things that do anything good for them in 2016.

And David Frum points out an additional Trump loss:

They call it the debate that meant nothing. That’s true if your mind is focused on November 8, as most minds are. But if you care to gaze a little further into the future than that, Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate revealed something big: a deep appetite among traditional Republicans for traditional Republicanism.

Think long term:

Pence prefigured one possible way that mainstream Republicans will deal with the Trump candidacy after it’s all over.

The Trump candidacy succeeded because of a massive revolt among rank-and-file Republicans against their leaders. Should the Trump candidacy fail, as now seems likely, those leaders stand ready to deny that the revolt ever happened. Instead, they’ll have a story of a more or less normal Republican undone only because (as Pence said last night) “he’s not a polished politician.” The solution for 2020? Bring back the professionals – and return to business as usual.

It’s unlikely to work. But you can understand why it’s an attractive message to a party-elite that discovered to its horror that it had lost its base and lost its way.

That was the second trap that the Pence-Trump team fell into, and Dana Milbank notes how that’s already playing out:

Both Trump and Pence, like most Republicans, routinely claim inspiration from Reagan. Pence even affects the Gipper’s nod and tilt of the head, and on Tuesday he drew groans in the media filing center when he recycled one of Reagan’s best lines – “There you go again” – when he scolded Kaine on Social Security.

Last month at the Reagan Library, Pence gave a full speech likening Trump to Reagan, saying they share “honesty and bluntness,” and “toughness.”

But the Reaganization of Trump suffered a serious blow on Monday when Reagan’s son, the conservative commentator Michael Reagan, revoked his earlier endorsement of Trump in a series of tweets after Trump suggested in a speech, without basis, that Hillary Clinton was unfaithful to her husband.

“No way do I or would my father support this garbage,” he wrote, saying Nancy Reagan would have voted for Clinton and that she was “appalled” before her death when people likened Trump to her husband. “Not the Party of Reagan,” he tweeted, and, “If this is what the Republican Party wants leave us Reagans out.”

Kaine furthered that war within the Republican Party. He helped it along, and that’s a win, and David Weigel sees even more:

The fact that Kaine kept repeating Trump’s old quotes, and stock lines about them, was spun to show that Trump told-it-like-it-was and the Democrats were slippery.

There was only anecdotal evidence suggesting that this worked. The Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who was live-tweeting one focus group’s reaction, insisted that it was brushing off Kaine’s attacks on Trump. “Tim Kaine is trying to use Donald Trump’s own words, but the hits aren’t landing because my group thinks they’re out of context,” he tweeted.

That was exactly how Trump’s campaign wanted viewers to think.

But that creates its own problems:

In the post-debate spin room, after praising Pence, they tried to move the ball on the other Republican belief about Trump – that whatever he says, responsible Republicans like them would control his administration. Pence had spent the debate describing an approach to Syria with a safe zone enforced by American troops that bore no resemblance to Trump’s.

Two Republican members of the House, which is expected to remain Republican even if Trump loses the election, confidently brushed off the suggestion that this would be a problem. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) pivoted to how Trump and Pence shared a “traditional notion of deterrence.” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) denied that there was much of a discrepancy at all, and praised Trump for picking a conservative leader instead of a “clone” of himself.

“Listen, I personally didn’t hear the differences,” Hensarling said. “I think they are both committed to rebuilding our national defenses and to ending a humanitarian crisis.” Asked which approach he favored, Hensarling demurred. “Listen, you’re going to have to talk to one of the foreign policy experts. Talk to me about financial services; I’m the chairman of the Financial Services Committee.”

This was how Republicans in Congress tended to react to Trump. Now in recess, they no longer have to field annoying hallway questions from reporters about the latest gaffe. Whatever his faults, Trump has five fingers on his right hand that can grip a pen and sign Republican-passed legislation and Republican-backed executive orders to undo the work of the Obama administration.

They’re dreaming. No one contains and controls Trump, not even Trump.

Paul Waldman thinks they face a reckoning:

At Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate, in which Mike Pence bravely denied that Donald Trump had ever said any of the many appalling and offensive things everyone knows he said (and for which there is copious video evidence), we got a hint of what will happen to the Republican Party once this election is over, and how it will understand everything it has been through over the past couple of years.

To put it simply: There will be no reckoning with what Republicans have done. There will be no accountability, no comeuppance, no penitence, no purges, no grappling with how they sold their souls to the most despicable and dangerous presidential candidate in modern history. Heads will not hang in shame, fingers will not point at the guilty, excuses will be neither demanded nor offered. Once Trump loses, the entire GOP will join hands and wade together into the baptismal waters of a new day and emerge clean and pure, their sins washed away by a collective agreement to pretend the whole thing never happened.

If Trump does lose, we’ve assumed there will have to be some serious soul-searching on the right, and there will be – but it will be circumscribed in this critical way. They’ll wonder and argue about how they can reach out to minority voters, or how they might appeal to the young, or what combination of strategies might put the battleground states they keep losing back in play. But one thing they won’t do is hold themselves to account for standing behind Trump.

They’ll do what Pence just did, deny that the truth about Trump even existed:

They all know who he is – that he’s an ignoramus, that he’s a liar, that he’s a bigot, that he’s a vulgar sexist, that he’s a con man who ropes ordinary people into scams and cheats the small-business people who do work for him, that he has the attention span and impulse control of a toddler, and that making him the most powerful human being on earth is not just a bad idea but outright lunacy. But each for their own reasons, they lined up behind him. His stench will be on all of them, so the best thing for them will be to say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about – I don’t smell anything.”

If Mike Pence can get up in front of 50 million people and deny that Trump ever praised Vladimir Putin or said women should be punished for getting abortions, or even say that Trump isn’t the one running a campaign of insults, how hard will it be for other Republicans to act like there was nothing unusual about their party’s 2016 nominee and nothing they have to distance themselves from?

Waldman is sure of that, given Trump’s primary opponents:

One after another, those who had who had called Trump a dire threat to their party and the republic lined up to endorse him. Even Ted Cruz, who in preparation for his 2020 presidential bid was positioning himself as the One Honest Man who opposed Trump, came around in the end as well.

So when the election is over, just about all Republicans will share an incentive to follow the same path: pretend that Trump and Trumpism never happened, or that it was no different from what we’ve seen in any other election. That goes for Republican voters too. There won’t be hard-fought primary campaigns pitting anti-Trump candidates against incumbents who had supported the nominee. And in 2020, the debates between the party’s presidential contenders won’t devolve into arguments about who was behind Trump and who wasn’t, or who embodies the cleanest break with what Trump represented. They’ll all be in the same boat – and they’ll know they don’t want to alienate all those angry Trump voters, whose anger will not have abated. Their main point of contention will be whose hatred of Hillary Clinton burns the hottest.

And so it all disappears:

For their part, Democrats will try to remind voters of who and what Republicans stood for in 2016. Those memories won’t disappear, particularly among the minorities and women who have been such special targets of Trump’s contempt. But against this, Republicans will present a united front of denial. And as hard as it may be to believe right now, there will come a time when Donald Trump is not the subject of endless news coverage every day. As time passes and new issues consume our politics, Trump will become an amusing character out of a movie whose details the public is slowly forgetting. It may not be enough to enable the GOP to take back the White House, but they’ll find pretending that 2016 never really happened easier than you’d think.

Mike Pence just showed them how that’s done. He showed them how it’s possible to learn nothing, and look like a winner, for about twelve hours. He can hang his own Mission Accomplished banner on the wall, but like George Bush, he walked right into a subtle trap. Sometimes a win is really a loss. Mike Pence is now that haddock.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Indirect Trap

  1. Rick says:


    Instead of completely agreeing with you (and Waldman), I think I’ll stick with my comment of yesterday — those voters who care more about appearances and less about actual truth will continue to claim that Pence won, while those who think truth matters can argue that Kaine won. Both sides make their point, and never the twain shall meet, at least this late in the campaign.

    What happens in the next few years if Trump loses?

    It could go either way — either Republicans will, at least for a while, try to do what the Germans did with Hitler after WWII, which is try to never mention him and see if he’ll be erased from public memory, or eventually say, “Yes, he was awful, but we had no knowledge of what he was doing”; or what Republicans tried to do with GWB after he was gone, which is try to never mention him and see if he’ll be erased from public memory, or eventually admit what they were forced to admit, which is that the Iraq War actually was a big mistake, but then pretend it was made infinitely worse by the inactions of (fill in name of Democratic villain/s, to be named later).

    In other words, eventually the truth of history will be irrefutable, and all they’ll really be able to do is somehow mitigate its damage, in hopes of making it easier for those future “voters who care more about appearances and less about actual truth” to defend their team.

    Let’s face it, there will always be those who believe that we should do what we feel like doing, rather than what we really should be doing, and that, since the ends always justify the means for these people, the truth can always be safely denied the opportunity to interfere with conservative policymaking.

    But Wait! There’s more!

    There’s always the chance future Republicans won’t have to struggle with any of this! Now let’s try to imagine what Republicans will do if Trump wins!


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