Last night was the only vice presidential debate of the 2016 cycle. The conventional wisdom was that it would be boring and unimportant, but it turned out to be exciting and far more substantive than the presidential debate Lester Holt moderated last week.
1. Pence Crushed It
Before the debate began, the Republican National Committee published a piece about how Pence had won the debate. Much was made of this mistake, but the RNC must have a psychic on staff, because Pence absolutely crushed it.
He had control of the debate from the opening question to the final round. He was calm, cool, and collected. He answered questions with a laser focus on campaign messages — national security, American strength, sensible immigration policy, etc. He managed to do all this while eliding the extremely serious differences between his own conservative principles and Trump’s more progressive populism. I’m not even saying this showed integrity or principle — but it showed remarkable debating skills. He was absolutely unflappable in the face of interruptions from the other people on the stage.
Pence had only one instance of Kaine seeming to get under his skin, which included a phrase political reporters got giddy over. And when Kaine, who has been trying to appeal to social conservatives by talking about his Catholic faith, successfully avoided mention of his support for Hillary Clinton’s radical abortion policies, Pence baited him into going public about them.
In general, Pence took his message directly to whoever was watching, while Kaine was trying to appeal to the moderator and other journalists.
2. Kaine Did Not
National Review‘s Rich Lowry said Kaine’s strategy was not to win but simply to bring up the many impolitic things Donald Trump has said over the years, over and over again. He succeeded in doing that, but Pence succeeded in jujitsuing them, for the most part. Pence mostly just denied that Trump had said this, that, or the other. Or he countered by reminding viewers of the many insults the Clinton campaign has made. Or he refocused on issues of greater importance than Trump’s vulgarity.
Apart from that narrow potential strategy, Kaine’s performance was not good. He interrupted incessantly, sometimes accidentally interrupting the moderator when he meant to interrupt Pence. He interrupted so many things so frequently and so unnecessarily that he once interrupted Pence’s personal remembrance of 9/11 to get in that he, too, had experienced 9/11.
He seemed flustered and never quite able to calm down — flailing, almost, in a manner reminiscent of Trump during much of his first debate. When he did calm down, he was able to get out his rehearsed talking points. But they seemed canned — a line about Trump firing people and Clinton hiring people landed with a dull thud.
At best, Kaine didn’t seem prepared to articulate the Clinton campaign’s larger principles or reasons for existing. At worst, he seemed eminently punchable. His lawyerly defense of Clinton’s mishandling of classified information was Clintonesque, but somehow even more smarmy. He exuded weakness in service of the status quo.
The most bizarre part of the whole debate was Kaine’s repeated insistence that Hillary Clinton had “eliminated Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” a mind-bogglingly inaccurate description of the Obama administration’s Iran-friendly nuclear deal.
Actually, the most bizarre part might have been when Kaine tried to use a Bible verse to go after Trump’s verbal diarrhea but did so in the context of a discussion about how personal faith (doesn’t) affect public policy. The net effect was of using Scripture to justify dehumanizing life in the womb in order to justify violence against it.
3. Moderator Pros And Cons
Elaine Quijano was really a mixed bag as moderator of the debate. Not that this excuses Kaine’s interruptions, or the general aggressiveness of the two candidates, but she really didn’t exert control at the beginning and unevenly interrupted the candidates. She didn’t have a good feel for when to get them in line and when to let them fight something out. She rushed to get through her questions, understandably, but it would have been nice to hear more from the candidates.
Having said that, Quijano’s questions were head and shoulders ahead of media darling Lester Holt’s. She posed tough questions to both candidates, without them being particularly gotcha-type questions. Usually, at least. It’s annoying when candidates answer the question they wish they’d received instead of the one they did receive, but at the same time, moderators make a mistake in trying to control a candidate’s answer. Several times the candidates veered off a topic into more interesting areas.
For the most part, the questions addressed issues of voter interest. Here were the first three:
QUIJANO: What about your qualities, your skills, and your temperament equip you to step into that role at a moment’s notice?
QUIJANO: Senator Kaine, on the campaign trail, you praised Secretary Clinton’s character, including her commitment to public service, yet 60 percent of voters don’t think she’s trustworthy. Why do so many people distrust her? Is it because they have questions about her e-mails and the Clinton Foundation?
QUIJANO: Governor Pence, let me ask you, you have said Donald Trump is, quote, “thoughtful, compassionate, and steady.” Yet 67 percent of voters feel he is a risky choice, and 65 percent feel he does not have the right kind of temperament to be president. Why do so many Americans think Mr. Trump is simply too erratic?
She went on to ask about their budget-busting economic plans, Trump’s taxes, Social Security running out of money, law enforcement and race relations, immigration, terrorism, Syria, North Korea, Russia, and even an open-ended opportunity to say a word to religious voters.
The oddest thing was the lack of a question about Obamacare, President Obama’s signature and failing 2010 law.
4. What Does It All Mean?
Pence did such a good job that I jokingly wondered if he was doing too well. He was so articulate, sensible, and measured that he didn’t just defeat Kaine and Clinton in this debate, you could say he showed Trump up as well.
In truth, it probably doesn’t mean much. It’s just a vice presidential debate and people don’t make decisions on who to vote for based on the veep pick or his or her debate performance. It can embolden the base, though, and it can send a message about the overall campaign.
To that end, Pence’s performance was reminiscent more of Dick Cheney’s in 2000 and 2004. George W. Bush picked a running mate who was highly competent and accomplished. It showed a confidence that voters picked up on. Likewise, and I write this as someone who has repeatedly argued Trump should have picked someone else, Pence and his performance support Trump’s oft-questioned contention that he “hires the best people.” I can’t imagine any candidate doing a better job than Pence did last night. This is one of his only jobs as the candidate, and he nailed it. It suggests that Trump’s instincts with Pence were correct. That doesn’t hurt his campaign.
With the yippy-yappy Kaine coming off petulant, ill-tempered, and somewhat obsessed with Trump, Clinton’s choice seems like a less likable version of herself, and therefore less wise.
So if this debate matters, it’s a solid win for Trump. Clinton can take some comfort in knowing that the vice presidential debate tends not to matter much.