So I keep thinking of the original film version of The Odd Couple, when Oscar got mad at Felix and took a pasta dinner Felix had made and flung it against the wall. “That was a perfectly good plate of linguine!” Felix protested. “Yeah,” Oscar said. “And now it’s garbage!”
That was this debate. Could have been linguine, but ended up garbage. And that was, to be sure, mostly Tim Kaine’s fault, stylistically. For the first 20 or 30 minutes in particular, Kaine was just rude, cutting off Mike Pence before he could even begin speaking. In time, Pence started doing his own interrupting; and all that in-sorrow head-shaking! He did more of that than Al Gore did back in 2000. But Kaine just plainly broke the rules of decent conversation.
Why? Kaine has been in debates before, and I haven’t watched them, but it’s kind of hard for me to believe that he became governor and senator of a state like Virginia, where I’ve spent time and where I know manners matter, by behaving like that.
So that’s what the Republicans will celebrate. But here’s what they won’t be able to celebrate: On substance, Pence—well, he did have to defend Donald Trump. And whether Kaine was interrupting or not, the fact is that he usually had the facts on his side. He kept saying, “Donald Trump said…” and Pence kept sorrow-nodding and saying, “He never said that.” But in fact Trump did say that, in virtually every case.
The most obvious example was Russia, where Pence took a much harder line than the guy on the top of his ticket, and dismissed Putin as a “small and bullying leader.” Kaine, pushy though he was, was factually correct in repeatedly bringing up Trump’s pro-Putin comments. And he was correct, too, when he hit Pence on his own pro-Putin statement. Pence had said: “I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” Pence denied his own words, too.
Beyond that, Pence kept trying to attack Putin and tie Hillary Clinton to him, which was just preposterous and, not incidentally echoed a screaming tweet Trump sent out mid-debate: “CLINTON’S CLOSE TIES TO PUTIN DESERVE SCRUTINY.”
Another example had to do with Trump’s remarks about letting NATO fall apart. Pence simply denied Trump had ever said that. A third had to do with Trump’s assertion that more countries should have nuclear weapons. A fourth with the Muslim ban that—unlike his plan for defeating ISIS—Trump has hardly kept a secret.
Again and again and again, Pence saw no evil, heard no evil.
In each case, Kaine was kind of rude. But entirely right. And Pence kept trying that Reaganesque “there you go again” thing, which he even said once verbatim. But he was trapped. That’s clearly the corner Kaine was trying to paint him into, and he succeeded even if his presence was too abrasive for those watching the debate.
But most people weren’t watching, so that raises the question of how this will be reported in the next few days. News reports aren’t likely to say “Tim Kaine was really rude in Tuesday night’s debate…” because that just isn’t the lingua franca of TV and radio news. It will be more like, “Tim Kaine and Mike Pence squared off in a contentious debate…” And that’s the Democrats’ best hope.
If the conversation over the next two days is about comportment, Kaine and the Democrats lose. If it’s about facts, they can convert it into a draw or even a narrow win, because there were several occasions when Kaine, however indelicately, forced Pence to defend an indefensible man’s indefensible postures.
A representative moment here came when Pence trotted out the Clinton Foundation. Kaine responded more or less as he was supposed to. One, the Clinton Foundation has done an enormous amount of good. And two, speaking of foundations, let’s look at the Trump Foundation. But he didn’t lower the boom on the Trump Foundation in the way he might have. He did not say, for example, that the Trump Foundation has just been ordered to stop accepting donations in New York. Still, he won the round.
The only actual honest moment came on the last question, about abortion, and here, both candidates did the work they needed to do. Kaine was unapologetic about defending choice, which if you’re Hillary Clinton’s running mate, gunning for 60 percent of the female vote, you’d damn well better do. Pence’s answer surely had them buzzing on the evangelical right. As someone observed on TV as I was watching, Pence probably helped Pence more tonight than he helped Trump. The person watching who probably was most upset was Ted Cruz, because Pence may have made himself the new Cruz in the eyes of the religious right believers.
Did any of it move the needle in this year’s debate? It may have inched it in Trump’s direction. Inched. But probably not even that, given the fallout from past veep debates. People just don’t care that much. And as I type these words, the Blue Jays and the Orioles are in the 10th inning. That probably took some eyeballs off the debate, more conservative than not, that might otherwise have been watching.
But Pence was good enough to arrest Trump’s descent. And if there’s no big news between now and Sunday—the next presidential debate—the story line will probably be something like, can Trump build on the foundation Pence gave him? In other words, the media narrative will be: OK, Donald, give us a performance to work with, and we’ll put you back in the game. In that sense, Kaine ratcheted up, a little, the pressure on Hillary. Which is not his job, and not what he’s done even once, until tonight.