This was a messy debate, fiesty and disorderly. It was like a boxing match with no rules or one where the ref either couldn’t or wouldn’t enforce them. I’m not sure if it was Elaine Quijano not having the seniority of a Candy Crowley or a Jim Lehrer to keep the candidates in line or whether those worthies would have found themselves in the same position she did. But the most salient point is that there were two debates happening on that stage tonight.
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. 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. It was largely a Tim Kaine monologue.
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 possibly have 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.
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.
For the aftermath of the debate, I think the key point will be that though Pence didn’t have his heart in it, Pence did deny numerous Kaine claims about Trump that are demonstrably true. I’m sure we’ll be hearing about that from the Clinton camp.
There were some cases where the two debates intersected and there it got choppy. 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, missile defense on NATO’s eastern periphery. 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 to pull their guaranteed defense and all the rest, Pence’s Russia hawk runs sounded both powerful and ridiculous. Nor was this the only case where this happen. 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.
That captures the basic symmetry of the debate. 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 her 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. He probably helped himself a decent amount for 2020, though for reasons I’ll discuss at any time I doubt that will ever happen for him. 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.