Mike Pence won the debate by not being annoying
WHAT CAN YOU say after an experience like Tuesday’s vice presidential debate except this?
Cue Edgar Allan Poe’s raven: Nevermore.
Those were minutes that dragged on like hours.
I called Republican Mike Pence the winner on points, though less because he turned in an accomplished performance than because he wasn’t annoyo-boyo. Democrat Tim Kaine proudly claimed that title.
Granted, it’s hard to be a vice presidential candidate. It’s harder still when your aim isn’t so much to explain your party’s policies as it is to attack your opponent’s running mate. And that, sadly, has come to be the VP nominee’s role.
Still, you can do it with some grace, dignity, and wit.
Not last night, however.
Kaine was every bit as grating as one of those yappy little terriers that are always barking and straining at their leashes. He obviously went into the debate with the charge of repeating three or four attack themes over and over and over again: Donald Trump’s divisive comments about Mexican immigrants; his, um, leadership role in the birther idiocy; his failure to release his tax returns; and his disparagement of John McCain.
Those were mostly fair points, but Kaine’s repetition dulled their effect and rendered his presentation canned and tinny.
Much worse, however, was Kaine’s attempt to keep Pence on the defensive by interrupting again and again and again. Let’s be clear: Though Kaine exaggerated the number of those who would be subject to Trump’s illegal-immigrant deportation plans and acted as though Trump hadn’t walked back his comments on punishing women who obtain abortions, many of the charges he made about GOP nominee Donald Trump were accurate. However, the manner in which he pursued them was like nails on a blackboard.
Off the top, Pence seemed to have a tougher challenge: Defend the many controversial and/or obnoxious remarks Trump has uttered. More often than not, Pence solved that problem, at least for the duration of the debate, by simply slipping free of that challenge. Instead, he often contented himself with a bemused shake of the head or an “oh, please, come on.” Once, he even channeled the Gipper’s debate line from 1980: “There you go again.”
Problem: Although it might work in the moment, you can’t simply pretend Trump isn’t Trump or that he hasn’t said what he has. There’s a record there, and it’s not that easily denied.
For my money, the most interesting moments for both men came in breaks from the overall bicker-fest. Pence, for example, was thought-provoking when he outlined his ideas for a more muscular approach to Syria, including possible military attacks against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. It was surprising, meanwhile, to hear him describe Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “small and bullying” figure and advocate a more aggressive posture toward the Russian leader, given Trump’s many favorable comments about Putin and his generally accommodationist bent when it comes to Russia. But though that may be Pence’s approach, so far, it’s not one Trump has embraced.
Kaine’s best moments came when he took time away from pestering Pence and actually outlined the differences between the Democratic and Republican approaches on the economy and on immigration. Those relatively crisp and effective policy-elucidation periods left me thinking the Democrat would have been better served had he spent more time calmly comparing and contrasting and less hectoring and interrupting.
To sum up, then: Kaine was probably more accurate and certainly more annoying. Pence’s less frenetic, more conversational demeanor made him easier to listen to, but he wasn’t particularly effective in quelling doubt about Trump, in no small part because he didn’t apply himself to that task.
As a hard-right social-issues conservative, Pence is out of the American mainstream. Still, I expect many Republicans will find themselves wishing he, not Trump, was their ticket topper.
He’s not, however — and that’s why I doubt his more polished, less grating debate performance will have any real effect on the race.