Last night’s vice presidential debate, which was expected to be about as exciting as a meal of mashed potatoes and rice, turned out to be much spicier than anybody expected, but in the end, it was mostly empty calories.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, running with Republican Donald Trump, faced off in a 90-minute event at Longwood University in Farmville, VA last night marked by interruptions, cross-talk, and an inability of moderator, CBS News reporter Elaine Quijano, to assert any sort of control over the proceedings.
Kaine, usually seen as mild-mannered, went on the attack from the opening moments of the debate, and for much of the evening appeared to be borrowing his style from Trump, whose constant interruptions of Clinton in their first debate drew significant criticism.
Pence, also not known as a fire-breather, spent most of the night on defense, parrying attack after attack not on his own policies but on the character and temperament of his running mate. He was successful, not because he effectively rebutted Kaine’s criticism of Trump, but because he generally avoided dealing with -- or in some cases outright denied -- words that came out of his running mate’s mouth.
In one memorable exchange, Kaine said, “Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He's called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting...He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a P.O.W., and said he wasn’t a hero because he'd been captured. He said African-Americans are living in Hell. And he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen.”
While Kaine was taking some liberties here -- for example, not all of Trump’s attacks on women came during the campaign -- the substance of what he said was undeniably true. Trump is on the record, frequently multiple times, saying all of those things.
Pence responded by calling Kaine’s restatement of Trump’s comments an “avalanche of insults” and said, “I mean, to be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you've said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn't have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables. It's -- she said they were irredeemable; they were not American.
“I mean, it's extraordinary. And then she labeled one after another "ism" on millions of Americans who believe that we can have a stronger America at home and abroad, who believe we can get this economy moving again, who believe that we can end illegal immigration once and for all.”
A key element of Kaine’s strategy throughout the evening was his repeated attempt to shame Pence for his support of Trump. At one point, he said, “Six times tonight I have said to Governor Pence, I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next, and in all six cases he’s refused to defend his running mate.”
It highlighted the awkward position Pence put himself in by accepting the offer to run with Trump. With a low-key style and a public persona that draws heavily on his devout evangelical Christian beliefs, he represents a sharp contrast with his brash, often crude running mate. Pence is also a career politician who has had years to develop considered positions on a wide variety of policy questions, but last night he found himself forced to defend, or simply deny, his running mate’s positions that seem to be made up on the fly.
PENCE: I'm very, very happy to defend Donald Trump. If he wants to take these one at a time, I'll take them one at a time.
QUIJANO: I will give you an opportunity to do that.
KAINE: More nations should get nuclear weapons. Try to defend that.
PENCE: Don't put words in my mouth. Well, he never said that, Senator.
KAINE: He absolutely said it. Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan.
PENCE: Most of the stuff you've said, he's never said.
But Trump did say that Japan and South Korea should get their own nuclear weapons. And he at least suggested that it is inevitable that Saudi Arabia will also. He said it in an interview with the New York Times, and he later repeated himself in a televised town hall meeting on CNN.
Pence managed to get in a few digs of his own, slamming Clinton on multiple lines of attack that Trump regularly uses on the stump. He brought up what Trump insists were conflicts of interest that arose while Clinton was serving as secretary of state and the Clinton family’s foundation was still accepting foreign donations, as well as her use of a personal email server for sensitive State Department communications.
Pence was also scathing in his criticism of the abortion rights positions that both Clinton and Kaine hold -- and he implied hypocrisy on Kaine’s part, for holding that position while simultaneously saying that his Roman Catholic faith makes him personally opposed to abortion.
“But what I can't understand is with Hillary Clinton and now Senator Kaine at her side is to support a practice like partial-birth abortion,” Pence said. “I mean, to hold to the view -- and I know Senator Kaine, you hold pro-life views personally -- but the very idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their life taken from them is just anathema to me. So for me, my faith informs my life. I try and spend a little time on my knees every day. But it all for me begins with cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life.”
On balance, though, Pence spent far more time on defense than he did on offense, but given the vast amount of ammunition his running mate had provided his opponent, that was all but inevitable.
In the end, while the tenor of the debate may have been surprising, it likely won’t have much impact on the race -- vice presidential debates seldom do. Both candidates came into the event with a mandate to do no harm to their campaigns, and they both, by and large, succeeded.