On Tuesday night, Indiana Governor Mike Pence cleaned former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s clock. He ran circles around him on policy. His calm demeanor utterly disarmed Kaine’s hectoring style.
He may have provided Donald Trump one last chance.
Trump has spent the week after his awful debate against Hillary destroying himself – speaking nonsensically about Miss Universe weight requirements, hinting about Hillary’s infidelities, acting in general like the buffoon his opponents always said he was. But Pence appeared calm, solid, and in control.
Here are six takeaways from the VP debate:
1. Vice Presidential Debates Don’t Generally Matter. While the media have covered the Pence-Kaine debate as though it’s a turning point in the campaign, vice presidential debates rarely are. In 1988, Lloyd Bentsen utterly demolished Dan Quayle; it didn’t matter, as Bentsen’s man went on to lose 40 states. In 2008, Sarah Palin held her own with Joe Biden; it didn’t matter, as the media went on to pillory Palin as a dolt, and McCain went on to lose in historic fashion. Nobody takes VP debates seriously because VPs generally have no job – as John Adams said, “not worth a warm bucket of spit.” And nobody thinks that VP picks reflect the judgment of the presidents who pick them – at least not enough to overcome qualms about the presidential candidates themselves.
2. The Moderator Sucked. As Always. The moderator was Elaine Quijano, and she was a disaster. She allowed Kaine to repeatedly interrupt Pence; she asked Pence eight times as many questions as she asked Kaine. The New York Times even reported, “Elaine Quijano, the moderator, helped Mr. Kaine along, opening one question with a recitation of Mr. Trump’s statements.” Later, the Times deleted the sentence, naturally, since they wanted to help Mr. Kaine along.
3. Pence Lied About Trump. Pence won the debate by looking unflappable and defending conservative positions. This meant that he had to pretend Donald Trump simply did not exist. He acted as though Trump didn’t say what Trump clearly said. He suggested that Kaine was just being silly for raising Trump’s activities as issues. He shook his head ruefully every time Kaine brought up one of Trump’s more insane comments, as though Kaine had to be making this Trump guy up. Kaine pointed out that Trump had promised he would reveal his tax returns. Pence: “He hasn’t broken his promise.” Um, wut? Kaine reeled off a list of Trump’s insulting comments. Pence shook his head, then said, “if Trump had said all the things that you 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.” Kaine accused Trump of praising Putin and saying he’s a great leader. Pence: “No, we haven’t.” Kaine said that Trump wanted more nations to have nukes. Pence: “He never said that, Senator.” Kaine said Trump wanted women punished for abortions. Pence denied it.
My personal favorite:
Pence, incredulously: "He says ours is an insult-driven campaign. Did you all just hear that? Ours is an insult-driven campaign?" pic.twitter.com/AHuvR3mQwD— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) October 5, 2016
It must be nice to live in Mike Pence’s universe, where Donald Trump apparently is a normal conservative who doesn’t say crazy stuff.
4. Hillary’s Record Is Indefensible. Pence may have avoided Trump, but Kaine had no capacity to defend Clinton. The line of the night came courtesy of Pence after Kaine inexplicably stated, “Governor Pence doesn’t think the world’s going so well and he, you know, is going to say it’s everybody’s fault.” Pence: “Do you?” When Kaine suggested that Hillary’s big win was the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Pence rightly responded, “Iraq has been overrun by ISIS.” Kaine had no clue about how to spin for Hillary, because it’s impossible to defend her. But Pence put Kaine on the defensive nonetheless.
5. Pence Was Campaigning For 2020. The conventional wisdom says that Pence’s performance was a precursor to a 2020 run. Pence has been sagging in the polls in his home state of Indiana; he’s been relegated to secondary position in this race thus far. But he shone last night, and demonstrated that he could handle typical Democratic politicians. That said, Pence’s hopes in 2020 rest on Trump losing narrowly. If Trump falls apart, Pence will be just another guy who rode the Trump Train into Eastwood Ravine.
6. The Pressure Is On Trump On Sunday Night. It’s all up to Trump on Sunday night. Pence can’t win this election for Trump. Trump has to win it. And Trump will have to win. A tie won’t be enough. Before the first debate, all Trump had to do was prove he wasn’t unstable. He failed. Now he’ll have to prove Hillary is unstable. And that’s a tougher task, given that she barely has a pulse.
This race isn’t over yet. But as much as Republicans wish that Mike Pence had the power to reshift the entire campaign, this campaign was always in Donald Trump’s unsteady hands. But at least Pence gave Trump another shot.