Kaine vs. Pence (VP Debate or Facts about your running mate)

Last night VP candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence engaged in a lively debate. The candidates sparred on the credibility of their running mates, the economy, and a number of national security issues. However, this debate was not about the issues. This debate was two politicians trying to accomplish political goals that didn’t necessarily concern the issues.

It was Tim Kaine’s express goal to avoid debating the issues at all. Instead it was his goal to prosecute a public trial of Donald Trump’s comments and enlist Mike Pence as Trump’s public defender. In the beginning of the debate Senator Kaine came out and interrupted Governor Pence often. I felt that this would play badly, because Pence presented himself as cool, calm, and collected. However as the debate wore on I began to see the method to Kaine’s madness. Kaine repeatedly quoted things Trump said and asked Pence to defend them. Pence tried to squirm out of defending Trump’s statements by at first attempting to counter by attacking Hillary’s record on the Middle East, her connections with the Clinton Foundation, and even attacking Obamacare.

As the debate wore on, Kaine tried to draw distinctions between Hillary’s economic plan and Trump’s by saying Hillary had a “You’re Hired” plan and Trump had a “You’re Fired” plan. I felt that this attack was a little stale but it continued to serve Kaine’s purpose of pressing Pence to defend Trump’s positions.

As the debate turned to the issue of Donald Trump’s tax record, Pence tried to appeal to working class voters by saying Trump’s record showed that he had gone through some difficult times and had emerged in a better place.

However when the debate turned to issues about policing and race, Pence began to stumble. He supported the police in general but he made a curious comment about how “accusations” of implicit bias in the police force is akin to demeaning police.  Kaine brought up how Philando Castile had been engaged by police over 40 times before he was killed in an encounter. He also brought up a statement by Senator Tim Scott about how he has been treated by law enforcement.

At this point Pence began rambling in some of his answers due to his inability to speak with any empathy when it comes to issues of race. I think it is interesting at this point that Clinton and Kaine have embraced implicit bias as something that is real and must be engaged; and Trump and Pence continue to view implicit bias as a theoretical matter.

The conversation moved to Illegal Immigration and Pence presented a plan which he said began with securing our borders and moved on to other aspects of illegal immigration. Kaine called Trump’s plan a “deportation nation” approach and continued his aggressive tactics by quoting Trump as saying he would deport millions of immigrants. Pence retorted that it was nonsense, but Trump did actually say he would deport millions of illegal immigrants.

Kaine persistently continued to press Pence by quoting Trump’s statements and it appeared to get to Pence. He began to look and sound defensive by attempting to actually defend some of Trump’s statements or trying to deflect others. A few times he directly disputed that Trump ever said some of his statements. This played against Pence as he looked like a reluctant surrogate for Donald Trump. Kaine repeatedly asked Pence “How do you defend this?” Pence had no consistent answer.

Kaine did falter whenever the debate pivoted to Secretary Clinton’s weak points such as her e-mail issue. The one time that Pence brought up the e-mails, Kaine responded too aggressively and spent too much time trying to defend an issue that is probably indefensible. Hillary did much better in her own debate when she apologized and dropped it. Kaine should have said that Mrs. Clinton has already apologized for this and taken responsibility. He could have dropped it after that.

The incredible thing about this debate is that neither of the contestants came in with a strategy that really was about debating the issues. Kaine was very interested in prosecuting a public case against Donald Trump. Pence was more interested in ensuring that he came away from the debate looking presidential. Therefore, the winner of the debate is the person who was more successful in executing his strategy and whether that strategy actually helped their overall campaign.

From this perspective I think Tim Kaine won the debate. He began executing his strategy from the beginning by interrupting Pence early and often in order to set the terms of the debate. It became clear very early that Kaine was most interested in showing that Trump was unqualified to be President.

On the other hand, Pence’s goal was to come out of the debate looking like someone who could competently represent the conservative platform. Both candidates accomplished their goals, however Kaine’s strategy will be more helpful in getting Hillary Clinton elected President. Pence’s strategy will be more effective in winning him a conservative coalition to support him if he runs for President in 2020.  But he didn’t do Trump any favors. He didn’t consistently defend Trump, lied about his statements other times, and gave halfhearted defenses the rest of the time.