WHEN A vice-presidential debate gets the nickname of “The Thrilla in Vanilla” before a word’s even spoken, you know you’re facing something with the potential to underwhelm. But in Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia both brought the fireworks, and two distinct styles of rhetorical combat, to at the Longwood University campus in Farmville, Virginia.
We got the back and forth between Democrats and Republicans that we’ve had all year, at the lower wattage of a vice-presidential context. Flash polls — notoriously emotional and notoriously unreliable — proclaimed Pence the winner, largely on matters of style.
But count on it, once fact-checkers and analysts check in with the accuracy of what was said, you’ll hear more of what’s bubbling in the social realm right now: that it was a somewhat clumsy, ham-fisted win for Kaine and the Clinton campaign on the facts.
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It wasn’t long after the debate started that Kaine went on the offensive, and doing it in a way that was more mildly offensive to Pence. Kaine’s first big shot wasn’t directed at the man sitting beside him, but aimed instead at Donald Trump, whom Kaine said “always puts himself first.”
It was opponent-by-proxy: Kaine stayed on offense, scoring Trump for his midwife role in the Obama birther controversy, his seemingly cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s naturally elitist mien ... and swiping at Pence for his role as running mate. It was serve and volley: Pence goes after Clinton on the proceeds of the Clinton Foundation; Kaine comes back with issues about the long-promised Trump tax returns.
The moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, ran a tight ship, at least at first, hitting the ball all over the park. Kaine and Pence were grilled on social security, police-community relations, social issues and America’s standing in the world. And mostly it was Kaine who brought his inner Doberman to the game. Maybe too much.
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DEBATING SOCIAL security, Kaine pledged to “never, ever engage in a risky scheme to privatize social security,” a long-cherished dream of conservatives. “Donald Trump wrote a book and he said Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and privatization would be good for all of us.”
Elsewhere in the 90-minute contest, Kaine was similarly forceful, perhaps to a fault. Kaine interrupted Pence 72 times, and his hands were in constant motion much of the time. He may have had a Red Bull I.V. drip before he went onstage.
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If Kaine went overboard last night as the picture of frenetic energy, Pence did himself no favors coming from the other imagistic direction. The Indiana governor tried to maintain a persona as Mr. Chill, the coolest guy in the room, too laidback by half, calmly shaking his head “no” as Kaine spoke.
But this night there was more to be learned from the guy who wouldn’t sit still. Pence sat reflexively shaking his head “no” despite the fact that much of what Kaine said was true.
Pence probably didn’t help himself with Republican partisans when he found himself agreeing with Kaine — once on community policing (“a great idea,” the Republican said) and once when he gave credit to President Obama “for bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.”
“[T]he Russians and the Chinese have been making enormous investments in the military,” Pence said. “We have the smallest Navy since 1916. We have the lowest number of troops since the end of the Second World War. We've got to work with Congress, and Donald Trump will, to rebuild our military and project American strength in the world.”
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COMPARE THAT with what Mitt Romney said in October 2012, in his third debate with President Obama: “Our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We're now down to 285. We're headed down to the — to the low 200s ... That's unacceptable to me.”
“You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” the president said. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — because the nature of our military's changed. ... And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's, it's [about] what are our capabilities?”
Romney made an endorsement of strength through giantism, and Obama seized on it. On Tuesday, Kaine didn’t follow through on that. But if Pence had done more homework, he wouldn’t have gone down Romney Road in the first place.
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Kaine pushed back on Trump’s broad brush of innuendo and attack with a panoramic attack of his own: “Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He's called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting. I don't like saying that in front of my wife and my mother.
“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 POW, and said he wasn't 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.
The annotated transcript from the Washington Post
“If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws, you can't have somebody at the top who demeans every group that he talks about. “
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ON EVERYTHING from intelligence sharing with NATO partners to nuclear proliferation, from abortion rights to facing down Putin and the Russians, Pence seemed to be on the back foot, in a reactive posture, calmly refuting the assertions coming his way. He looked good doing it, but much of his night was spent on the defensive. Maybe never so much as when Kaine spoke of the hot-button immigration question, and Trump’s way of dealing with it.
“Mike Pence and I both are descended from immigrant families. Some things, you know, maybe weren't said so great about the Irish when they came, but we've done well by absorbing immigrants, and it's made our nation stronger.
“When Donald Trump says Mexicans are rapists and criminals, Mexican immigrants, when Donald Trump says about your judge, a Hoosier judge, he said that Judge Curiel was unqualified to hear a case because his parents were Mexican, I can't imagine how you could defend that.”
And on Tuesday, Pence never did.
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New York Magazine website, clearly understands how this pans out not in the quick-twitch, first-response of what feels good hours or a day or two after the debate, but over time:
“Certainly, by theater standards, Pence outperformed his adversary. A polished talk-show host by training, Pence spoke in calm, measured tones and swatted away Kaine’s rapid-fire attacks on his running mate with genial head-shaking or confident-sounding denials ...
“[T]here is usually little penalty for lying incessantly as long as you do it with proper body language and a reassuringly manly baritone.
“There is, however, an exception to that rule: You should not lie about things that can be easily disproven with short video clips. So, if Pence had simply insisted that Donald Trump’s tax plan would balance the budget and mostly help the middle class, and that he would allow coal plants to spring up everywhere without impacting the climate, and that his plan would crack down on Wall Street, he’d have walked away the undisputed winner. Instead, Pence claimed over and over again that his running mate had never said the things that Tim Kaine was quoting verbatim. ...
“The way debates work is that they play out over time, with an initial impression usually overwhelmed by subsequent messages rippling through the media. In this case, whatever small gains Pence made are likely to be canceled out by days of him looking ridiculous.”
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IT’S BEEN thought for some time that, his protestation to the contrary notwithstanding, Pence is using this campaign as a rehearsal for a run in 2020. He needed a better introduction to the American people. Tuesday, Pence was the reluctant apprentice. He prevailed in a contest of personal style, and for many voters, that’ll be enough to carry the day.
But a month and change before what may be the most pivotal American election in modern history, more of the nation wants the beef — substance reflected in command of and admission of the facts — not the bun. By that reasonable metric, Pence didn’t win anything on Tuesday night. And that style/substance contrast may well be transferable to the top of the ticket, 32 days from now.
Image credits: Kaine and Pence upper: poll images from the debate. Kaine and Pence lower: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post.