Mike Pence Won The Vice-presidential Debate Battle, But He Lost The War. | Gradient

Mike Pence won the vice-presidential debate battle, but he lost the war.


There were a lot of emotions going into Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate. Donald Trump got killed in the presidential debate and spent the rest of the week pounding nails into his own coffin. Hillary Clinton maintained a slight lead, but battleground states remain well within the realm of contention. Their first matchup focused more on style than substance, with Clinton struggling to explain her shifty tax policies and Trump struggling to not burst into a white hot sphere of pure rage.

There was an unspoken consensus that with Trump out of the picture, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence could sit down and talk about substantive issues in a boring but meaningful way that may actually clarify the ideas of their respective bosses. Their aims were pretty clear. Pence needed to prove that Trump is actually a way more chill dude than he appears. Kaine just needed to hammer home the same point Democrats have been hammering all along: Trump is unfit for the Oval Office.

In a sense, both succeeded, but neither did a very pretty job of it. On style points, it was Pence’s night. With the measured calm he honed during his years as a radio talk show host he blocked most of Kaine’s shots with stern, simple language (when he bothered to speak at all; keep an eye out for his now famous headshake on this week’s SNL). He took a terrific volley of attacks and never until the very end seemed in the least bit rattled. You could have put an ice cube on his head, and it wouldn’t have melted.

By contrast, Kaine broke from his congenial dad mold for a testier, feistier spirit that didn’t play well on camera. He interrupted throughout the evening, talked over the moderator and resorted to too many canned lines. He was irritated by Pence’s refusal to engage on any of his attacks, and it showed.

But that last point may also end up being in Kaine’s favor in the longterm. Vice-presidential debates are not really a debate about who would be the better vice-president, they’re a debate about which vice-president can make the better case for their respective boss. On that front, Pence hardly even tried. His response to Kaine’s play-by-play of Trump’s most miserable moments was to mournfully shake his head, when he wasn’t outright denying things that are well-known facts. Trump has praised Vladimir Putin. Pence did say Putin was a “stronger leader” than President Obama. Trump did propose a “deportation force.” Trump did say women who get abortions should be punished. Trump did say more countries should have nuclear weapons. Trump did call for a shutdown in accepting immigrants from “Muslim” countries. These are all public statements, and the Clinton campaign took to fact checking Pence’s words with glee.

That’s a pretty damning ad, and there’s a safe bet that more people will watch it than will watch a vice-presidential debate.

And a few times, Pence didn’t even try to defend Trump. On the subject of foreign policy, Pence out-and-out broke with Trump’s words, outlining an excellent plan for dealing with Russia and Syria. The problem is, as former Jeb Bush communications director Tim Miller pointed out, his plan was closer to Clinton’s than Trump’s.

All told, it was an incredible performance. The Republican Party has tried everything they can think of to deal with Donald Trump. They tried to sabotage him, so that Marco Rubio could claim the nomination. They tried to force him into a friendlier mold, a strategy that backfired in the days leading up to the RNC. His circle of confidantes now seem content to just let Trump be Trump, while Republican leadership still insists that he is improving day by day.

Pence’s tactic was simply to disassociate from reality altogether, talking and acting as if Scott Walker was at the top of the ticket. It’s admittedly a better strategy than attempting to defend Trump — that is something a man like Pence who regularly claims to be “A Christian, an American and a Republican, in that order” simply cannot do.

But it’s not ultimately a winning strategy, as the morning chatter demonstrates. Pence sacrificed the facts to win the battle and win the battle he did. Kaine was flummoxed and incredulous when he stammered, “six times tonight I have said to Governor Pence, I cannot defend how you would defend your running mate’s position. And in all six cases, he has refused to defend. And yet, he is asking everybody to vote for somebody he cannot defend.” His exasperation was clear, and it lost him style points, but he was correct. And that may well win the war.

As an interesting aside, there are reports that Trump is furious at Pence for refusing to defend him. One anonymous Trump advisor said that Pence “won the debate overall, but lost with Trump.” Another source said, “I’ve never seen him so pissed off,” and reported that Trump fumed, “Melania was right” (Melania Trump reportedly urged her husband to go with Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie over Pence). If there is any truth to this, Pence’s win may even be more short-lived than it already looks.

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