Little has gone as expected in this extraordinary presidential cycle, so we should have known Tuesday’s vice presidential debate would have a twist or two in it, too.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence each represented three clients in their 90 minute debate from Farmville, Va. The two former attorneys pled the case for their respective principals (Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump), to be sure, but also for their respective parties and for themselves.
It may be said that both succeeded in all three pursuits, with perhaps the clearest success on behalf of their own cases. One of the two will soon be vice president, placing him the proverbial heartbeat away. The other will automatically enter the conversation the next time his party needs a presidential nominee.
It is not entirely clear which of these prospects might be the most desirable at this moment in history.
In this regard, Pence, whose job of defending Trump on Tuesday night was both complex and thankless, may have benefited most. He was unable to defend much of what Trump has done or said, but he was earnest and artful in turning the multiple challenges aside.
Trump was a businessman, not a politician, Pence explained. He wasn’t “a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.” He often simply denied that Trump had said certain things, or at least not in the way implied.
When Pence did not have a good response, he went after the content of the challenge. “I appreciate that line,” he would say. At other times he asked if Kaine himself had “worked hard on that one.” Late in the debate, when Kaine again sought a comment on Trump’s description of immigrants as “rapists bringing crime, bringing drugs,” Pence irritably objected to his “whipping out that Mexican thing again.”
Although millions tuned in to learn more about these Number Two aspirants, they soon learned the subject matter would be primarily about the Number Ones. And in this regard, the two debaters became prosecutors, wrestling to put the nominee of the other party in the dock.
In brief, all thoughts of a mild-mannered and orderly discussion were soon abandoned. Instead, two reputedly nice guys in their late 50s who might have elevated the discussion submerged their better natures in uncharacteristic bickering. They interrupted each other incessantly and blithely blew past the traffic signals of moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News.
Many viewers doubtless bailed early.
For those who stuck around, the impressions created by the first half hour carried over almost to the end. Kaine was the most eager to attack, even in his opening statement about why he could be trusted to be president if the need should arise. When asked about the trustworthiness of Clinton, Kaine came back with: “The thought of Donald Trump as president scares us to death.”
It was not clear whether Kaine’s hyper-caffeinated performance was a strategy for keeping the upper hand or just a case of over-eager performance anxiety. It may have had elements of both. But the Clinton campaign clearly wanted Kaine to keep the heat on Trump at every opportunity, even if that made the senator a kind of jukebox of Trumpian gaffes.
It seemed that the Clinton camp had decided it could afford to make Kaine less appealing so as to keep the focus on Trump and away from Clinton. Initial responses to quickie polls on Tuesday seemed to indicate this was very much what happened.
Pence, meanwhile, won plaudits in the media and focus groups by keeping his cool and deflecting the assaults. But some of his dodges may not fare as well in hindsight. Fact checkers were already finding fault as the debate progressed.
Quite a few times, Pence disputed Trump quotes that are quite easily documented, such as admiring Vladimir Putin as a stronger leader in his country than President Obama has been in his. Before the dawn, Democrats were assembling ads featuring the video of Trump saying things alongside video of Pence denying them.
There were other claims by Pence, delivered in an earnest radio voice he developed as a broadcast talk show host in the 1990s. At one point, after attacking the Clinton Foundation as a way to launder political money in exchange for favors, he said that it had only spent 10 percent of its money on charitable causes. A quick check with the charity rating agency showed the actual figure to be 88 percent.
Most people who watched the debate will never know this, but such instances do tend to have a cumulative effect.
Both candidates had moments of shading or bending the truth, but in head-to-head confrontations with the facts, Kaine had the better of the evening’s exchanges — especially as Pence was sometimes refuted in real time.
There was also an amusing moment when Pence was trying to turn the tables on the “insult campaign charge,” saying Clinton’s reference to “deplorables” among Trump’s supporters dwarfed all Trump’s tweets and speeches and media putdowns about rival candidates, former associates and even beauty contest winners.
Just as Pence was attempting that jujitsu, Trump was sending out a retweet saying Kaine looked like a villain in one of the Batman movies.
So what difference do all these observations make? Most observers do not expect the VP debate to be nearly as important as the three presidential clashes, the next on Sunday, Oct. 9.
It surely seems possible that Pence, if his ticket does not win on Nov. 8, will remain in the national conversation. There will be an Indiana Senate seat on the ballot in 2018, and there would be a fresh new round of GOP presidential primaries in 2020 — the debates for which will surely begin in 2019. Pence has flirted with a presidential bid before, and nothing about this campaign has acted to discourage that ambition — least of all Tuesday night’s debate.
Kaine, for his part, might be vice president for the next four or eight years. Or he might be back in a Senate seat that may well be his to keep indefinitely. If there is another presidential sweepstakes in his party in 2020, he will be well positioned to enter it — if only because his party has yet to produce a new crop of statewide officeholders with obvious promise on the national level.
If so, the flaws of his performance on this night, his first in the true spotlight of the nation’s political playoffs, may well have been long since forgotten.