Last night, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, the Democratic and Republican nominees, respectively, for vice president, met for their one and only debate of the campaign. After being bombarded on a daily basis with speeches, articles, and tweets from or about the presidential nominees, it seemed like it would be a relief to hear from the other candidates. Almost. And for a few minutes, it almost felt like a normal election.
But after all, this is still the election where Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president who makes dangerous, insulting, and false statements on a regular basis, and where a rational discussion of policies and plans to address the multitude of issues facing our country has taken a backseat to deciding who is less hated and who is even fit to lead our country. So while this debate held the promise of having a bit more decorum than any debate involving Donald Trump could, it didn’t pass the test as a respectful, truthful discussion of the issues.
Few people knew much about the VP candidates before the debate. Mike Pence is the governor of Indiana, best known for signing into law the twisted, Alice in Wonderland “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, legislation that allows so called faith-based businesses to discriminate against people who don’t share their religious beliefs or lifestyles, i.e., gay people. Tim Kaine is Virginia’s senator and former governor who has managed to get elected to multiple offices in a formerly red state that has been transitioning to blue. Both are career politicians, even though Pence has aligned himself with Trump, the “Washington Outsider.”
But Indiana’s discriminatory anti-LGBT law was not discussed, and the debate mainly centered on foreign policy, including terrorism/ISIS, the Iraq War, the Iran nuclear pact, nuclear weapons and Russia/Putin. While some domestic issues did come up, such as Social Security, police issues, and immigration, Pence tried to make the point that Trump is the strong leader the country needs to solve our problems. Like Trump himself, however, he gave very few details or actual plans as to how this would be accomplished. Like Trump, he laid the blame for virtually all of our problems on President Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Kaine actually did list Clinton’s plans and ideas on virtually every policy issue that came up, and then followed up on how Trump has failed to do so; the few actual plans Trump has put forth include his un-American and unconstitutional ideas for deporting Mexican immigrants, barring Muslims from entering the country, and using “stop and frisk” anti-crime measures. And Kaine hammered Pence on the issues that have plagued Trump lately: Trump’s failure to keep his promise to disclose his income tax returns and his likely payment of no taxes for years, his sexist and degrading remarks about the former Miss Universe and women in general, his admiration for Putin coupled with his Russian business interests and lack of support for NATO, his belief (later weakly retracted) that women should be punished for having abortions, and his suggestion that nuclear arms be allowed to proliferate to other countries, despite decades of strong efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation, from both political parties. Kaine made these points frequently and aggressively, while Pence merely shook his head, denying, even if politely, the truth.
Kaine put aside his “nice guy” image by being aggressive and interrupting more than felt comfortable. While most viewers probably thought of this as a negative for Kaine, it was most likely intentional, as some analysts on MSNBC suggested, to either bait Trump into reacting in ways that would get him into yet more trouble, and/or to make Hillary look more presidential and under control in the next debate. Democratic strategist James Carville said that Kaine’s job was to keep Trump’s meltdown going. Kaine’s sometimes agitated demeanor and Pence’s relative calmness gave the latter points for style, although Pence soon began interrupting as well, and there were moments of chaos when both candidates and the moderator were all shouting at once. Kaine, however, clearly won on substance, with Pence meekly shaking his head at Kaine’s reminders of the falsehoods that Trump has made throughout the campaign. But while Clinton will have the opportunity to appear “presidential” in her next debate with Trump, it remains to be seen if Trump will take the bait and begin a new round of rants on his 3:00 am tweets.
The debate, quite frankly, was really not much of a debate due to the frequent interruptions, simultaneous talking, and off-topic responses on the part of both candidates. While some fault goes to the moderator, Elaine Quijano, who failed to establish rules of the debate and was unable to keep order, the blame also goes to whoever set up the debate format, which did not allow sufficient time for responses or sufficient opportunity for rebuttal or an orderly discussion of the points. While most of the questions were fine, the debaters sometimes did not answer the questions asked, nor did they have sufficient time to do so. But until these debates are set up in a way that allows the debaters to present their points and rebut their opponent’s in a fair, honest, and orderly way, they are less debates than unorganized shouting matches. As a result, the “winner” is often declared by half-assed media analysts as the one with style points who appears more “presidential”.
The night before the debate, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow made a case on her show that the real purpose of the VP debates is for the candidates for vice president to defend and improve the standing of their top-of-the-ticket running mates. She prepared an effective historical analysis of VP debates over the years, the relatively few that have been held, giving examples to demonstrate that. Her point was that it is not so much that the VP debaters themselves must “win” the debate, but that they must make their presidential nominee look like the better of the two candidates. Since it is widely acknowledged that Donald Trump lost the first debate to Hillary Clinton, the task for Pence in the VP debate was to defend Trump, bolster his policies and statements, twist them to appear rational, and put Trump’s campaign back on track. Kaine’s job was also to support Clinton and to try to get a rise out of Trump, but he had much less of a burden and did not have to clarify or spin her comments. His aggressive style might be enough to lure Trump. So in this debate, while Pence perhaps won on style points and appeared more “presidential” than Kaine, he was unable to rebut Clinton’s and Kaine’s points about Trump’s toxic policies and statements made over the sixteen-month campaign, and he just couldn’t make the case for Trump. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the professional media analysts were unable to see that.
The next debate will once again feature the presidential candidates. I would guess that Trump will be more controlled, stick more to the script, and use his reality TV experience to play president. The question is, can Clinton adjust to Trump’s adjustment? Will she again try to bait him into losing his cool or will she be content to demonstrate her superiority on the issues and the substance of her campaign? My guess is that the next debate will be more issues oriented, and Clinton will have to defend herself without being defensive and attack Trump on substance without being too aggressive. It will not be an easy task, and she must avoid being overconfident based on her previous performance. However it goes, she needs another decisive win to stay ahead and to fuel the final stretch of the campaign.