There are few less consequential major events in political campaigns than vice presidential debates — and last night’s slugfest between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine will almost certainly be no different.
It’s possible that this debate will change the minds of a few voters, but considering that running mates almost never have a serious impact on a presidential race, its highly unlikely.
However, if there is one takeaway from last night’s affair, it is that reporters have yet to fully grapple with the almost pathological dishonesty of the Republican presidential ticket.
The immediate media response to the debate was to grant Mike Pence the victory, largely on style points. Kaine was “trying too hard,” wrote The Washington Post. The same paper’s Chris Cilizza called Pence the winner because he “repeatedly turned to the camera when he answered questions, making clear he understood that the real audience wasn’t in the room but watching on TV. The Indiana governor was calm, cool and collected throughout — a stark contrast to the fast-talking (and seemingly nervous) Kaine.”
Kaine interrupted too much and tried to say too much. Pence was folksy, down-to-earth, and used his previous experience as a radio show host to deftly deflect Kaine’s attack lines.
But there’s one major problem with this analysis: It ignores the fact that when Pence wasn’t misrepresenting the statements of his running mate, he told one lie after another.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example came when Kaine pointed out that Pence had called Russian strongman Vladimir Putin a better leader than President Obama. Pence denied this, even though there is widely-available video of him doing just that.
Pence’s statements on Russia were some of the most bizarre of the evening. He repeatedly criticized Putin as a “small and bullying leader,” which stands in stark contrast to Trump’s constant praise of the Russian president. He said the Russian provocations must be met with American “strength” and that the United States should consider attacking Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. On both issues, Trump has said the opposite.
What was perhaps most striking about Pence’s performance is that he simply denied Trump said things that he’s clearly said. Though Kaine got ahead of his skis when he said that Trump wanted to get rid of NATO, he pointed out that Trump has called NATO “obsolete,” which Pence said wasn’t true (nope, Trump said it). He denied that Trump said more countries should have nuclear weapons (yup, Trump said that). He called Kaine’s claim that Trump wants to deport all undocumented immigrants “nonsense” (actually, it’s one of Trump’s few policy positions).
He even criticized Kaine for voicing an avalanche of insults after Kaine had literally listed many of the insulting things that Donald Trump has said about women, immigrants, and others.
But there were so many untruths from Pence that it was hard to keep track. He criticized Hillary Clinton for failing to negotiate a new status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government in 2011 to keep American troops, even though this was not her job as secretary of state. He repeated the oft-stated, and false, GOP charge that a $400 million payment to Iran earlier this year was a “ransom payment.” He said the Clinton Foundation spent only 10 percent of its proceeds on charitable giving — a long discredited argument. He said that Clinton supports overturning the ban on partial-birth abortion (she doesn’t). He said a Trump-Pence administration would never look to “punish women” who had abortions, even though Trump has said exactly that — and even though Pence would repeal Roe v. Wade, which would in effect punish women who wanted to have abortions by forcing them to carry a fetus to term or seek an illegal, possibly dangerous, procedure.
I get that it can be hard to fact-check on the fly, but Pence’s lies were so obvious, and repeated so often, that anyone who has even tangentially followed this campaign could point them out. No matter how well Pence might have come across; no matter how much more restrained he was than Kaine, none of this should be allowed to obscure his dishonesty. If journalists and pundits have one responsibility to the body politic it is to make clear that when a politician is lying, we call it a lie — not give them credit for lying with style. Most voters don’t understand the nuance of policy and don’t know when a politician is being dishonest.
We’re doing the American people a genuine disservice if we praise the performance of a politician while failing to hold them accountable for saying things that are untrue.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.