Tuesday night saw the first and only Vice Presidential Debate of the 2016 election cycle. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic candidate running as Hillary Clinton’s VP, and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, the Republican candidate running as Donald Trump’s VP, faced off for a series of nine 10-minute segments hosted by Elaine Quijano, the daytime anchor at CBSN (CBS News’s 24-hour livestream digital channel).
While both contenders are well-known and influential within national political circles and their own states, according to the FiveThirtyEight, over half of Americans do not know who Mike Pence or Tim Kaine are, which made this debate something of a national coming-out party for the two men. Of course their relative anonymity is a reflection both of current American culture in regards to politics and of the overbearing nature of having such polarizing and dominant personalities at the top of the respective tickets.
The tone of the debate was markedly more casual than the presidential debate at Hofstra last week. The candidates were seated together at a table, sitting opposite each other with Quijano in between them.
Now, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence are both decorated public servants with several decades of experience between them at the national and state levels. Neither of them, however, are Donald Trump or even Hillary Clinton when it comes to sheer stage presence. I thought Pence came off as the better of the two and certainly appeared to be the most presidential. He was thoughtful, articulate, intelligent and genuine; in other words, he was the opposite of the man at the top of his ticket. He had a better stage presence, and when he interrupted, it was more to quickly interject than to try to hijack the conversation.
Tim Kaine was somewhat less presidential. He was forceful, occasionally funny and constantly on the attack. However, he was also constantly interrupting Pence. One media outlet reported that he interrupted the Republican over sixty times during the course of the debate, which is quite a high number even for our sound-bite charged era. The senator from Virginia – much like the candidate at the top of his ticket did in her recent debate – clearly came into the event with a list of prepared comments and phrases he wanted to make sure he said, if not for their impact on viewers then for the chance they will be played on a loop on various outlets over the next 24 hours. Overall I’d guess the Democrat was rather obviously trying to copy Joe Biden’s style from the 2012 veep debate, failing to realize that only Joe Biden can pull off Joe Biden’s style.
Kaine also kept trying to pin the problems of the Donald onto the governor of Indiana bringing up line after controversial line from the mogul and asking Pence to explain the statement or tweet or what not. While not a bad ploy, this tactic did not work particularly well with Pence, who artfully dodged each attempt by his rival to pin the problems of the Donald on the would-be VP. In the process, though, Pence ended up painting a portrait of and defending a presidential nominee who did not really seem to resemble Trump, a nominee who is kind, genuine, sympathetic and not a fan of Vladimir Putin (in other words an imaginary Trump). It was a great glimpse into why so many Republicans have endorsed Trump since the influential conservative joined the ticket, though, as Pence makes Trump appear to be an actual conservative and not at all Trump-like.
Of course Trump did not help his competent but doomed lieutenant out, taking the opportunity to live-tweet the debate in classic Trump fashion. While Pence was defending Trump as a cool-headed and intelligent statesman whose words were being twisted and image caricatured by Democrats, the would-be statesman was busy retweeting personal insults about Senator Kaine’s appearance and bizarrely calling out Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Not the most presidential thing to do, but of course at this rate, nothing Trump does will ever be presidential.
Overall this Veep debate was probably inconsequential for this election. The candidates at the top of the tickets are so polarizing that the actions of their VP picks are probably not as important as they might normally be in an election year, and even then many political scientists do not think that VP picks are all that important generally. Pence had the better night of the two and may generate a little bit of buzz for a 2020 run against Hillary, but otherwise I’d predict a fairly muted impact from last night.
In fact the best part of the night was actually this gem from CNN a couple hours after the debate concluded: “Trump was frustrated by the reviews after his first debate with Clinton. A long-time Trump friend said, ‘What I worry about is him hearing Hillary Clinton and Mike Pence are better debaters than him. That isn’t what he likes to hear.’”
That is pure and classic Donald Trump. His reaction to his vice president candidate doing well is to be upset because he feels like he has been shown up. Well, free advice for the Donald from someone whose father did not give him a small loan of a million dollars: If you don’t like your performance, then work harder and do better.