I didn’t bother watching the V-P debate in 2012 (Biden-Ryan, pour mémoire) but given the peculiar nature of this election, felt that I should this one, so caught it on YouTube this Wednesday morning. It was the first time I’d seen Mike Pence apart from a couple of minutes of his remarks when Trump announced his pick (and leaving the press conference as Pence began to speak). Tim Kaine I’d seen only a couple of times, one being his great speech when Clinton rolled out his nomination, so had a positive impression of him. The early consensus among pundits is that Pence “won” the debate and Kaine “lost” it, and with instant polls apparently giving Pence the advantage. N’importe quoi. Neither won nor lost. Both men did what they had to do. I thought Kaine was very good; he was articulate, crisp, and sharp, and didn’t miss a beat. Certain pundits tweeted—I didn’t keep track of who said what—that he was “over-rehearsed,” “tense,” kept repeating his “talking points” (whatever the hell a “talking point” is), blah blah. The degré zéro of instant punditry. Kaine’s two-part mission in the debate was to promote Hillary to the hilt and tear down Trump, doing the latter by repeating several times the gross, outrageous, racist, sexist statements Trump has made about women, Mexicans, blacks, the handicapped, and other groups. Gotta keep reminding people of that, including Pence and Republicans, and not let it go. I thought Kaine succeeded in all this. However… he undermined himself by continually interrupting Pence, particularly during the first third of the debate. It was irritating. At one point I blurted out to him, via the computer screen, “shut up! let him finish!” Pence also started to interrupt as the debate progressed and with Kaine doing it less, but as first impressions are invariably the ones that stick, Kaine will be seen as the main interrupter, which never helps. This is not to say that he “lost” the debate, just that he by no means “won” it.
As for Pence, he was good on form: calm and generally collected, i.e. the anti-Trump. And while he repeatedly shook his head when Kaine reminded him of Trump’s words—all 100% true—his body language was not off-putting IMO. On substance, he was a mix of langue de bois, untruths, and Republican hot air. Mainstream Republican voters were surely happy with what they saw, and with the party establishment certainly regretting that he’s not the one at the top of the ticket. It was almost breathtaking how Pence both denied that Trump had said things that had indeed said and refrained from defending him at several points, and, moreover, taking positions on foreign policy that Trump has never expressed. E.g. Pence, expressing consternation over Aleppo, said that “what America ought to do right now is immediately establish safe zones” in Syria to which the “vulnerable” and “families with children” could move to, that the “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength,” and that “the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime, to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo…”
Wow! Has Donald Trump ever so much as hinted at any of this? Even indirectly? And the bit about “deploy[ing] a missile defense shield to the Czech Republic and Poland”? Has Trump even mentioned those countries during the campaign, let alone a missile defense shield? This is Pence’s policy—and the establishment GOP’s—not that of the party’s candidate. Really too bad Kaine didn’t point this out, or ask Pence about it. A golden opportunity missed.
The American “deep state” will be reassured, that’s for sure. Pence is a mainstream conservative Republican, a Ted Cruz on Valium. If Trump wins the election and, heaven forbid, something happens to him—suivez mon regard—Pence will be, for the “deep state,” perfectly acceptable in the Oval Office. And the congressional GOP will be aux anges.
As for the rest of us, ce sera le cauchemar…
The bottom line: neither candidate moved a single vote. Both were speaking to their respective party’s base and shoring it up. And both no doubt succeeded. They did what they had to do.
And what they did will all be forgotten after Sunday’s town hall debate between Clinton and Trump, which will be a doozy, sans aucun doute.
A few good instant analyses I’ve come across:
Jamelle Bouie in Slate, “This wasn’t a debate. This was a national gaslighting: If Mike Pence ‘won,’ it’s because he was shameless about denying reality.”
David Corn in Mother Jones, “Mike Pence and the failure of the Republican establishment: In their hearts, they know they are wrong.”
Kevin Drum, also in MoJo, “Mike Pence lied constantly last night. So how can he be the winner of the debate?”
Joan Walsh in The Nation, “Tim Kaine rubbed Mike Pence’s nose in Trump’s crazy: Kaine interrupted his way to the truth at the vice-presidential debate.”
Paul Waldman in The Washington Post, “When 2016 is over, the GOP will pretend Donald Trump never existed.”
UPDATE: Voilà a few more good commentaries:
Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, “Mike Pence, dancing with Trump: In the Vice-Presidential debate, Pence demonstrated the scale of the denial and self-delusion of those aligned with Donald Trump.”
Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, “Mike Pence lost the debate because he lied about the wrong stuff: Never lie about statements that are on video.” À propos, check out the great attack ad (in the article) that the Clinton campaign rolled out shortly after the debate.
Mark Joseph Stern in Slate, “Mike Pence is a coward and an extremist: He’s the perfect face of the GOP.”