Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The VP Debate Goes Rogue: Mike Pence Soundly Defeats Donald Trump

Last night’s Vice Presidential debate was largely an evening of holding serve.  CNN runs an instant poll, which went 48-42 for Pence, a win perhaps, but hardly the 62-27 margin by which Hillary Clinton had thumped on Donald Trump.

Both candidates turned in respectable performances. There was plenty of reason for supporters of either ticket to conclude that their Veep nominee had done a very good job. As a result, there is little likelihood that the debate will result in a seismic shift in the polls. With the next Presidential debate just days away, it is unlikely that the impact of a relatively even VP debate will be lasting. More likely it will be overwhelmed by the impact of Trump v. Clinton II.

Yet the more intriguing issue to emerge from this debate is that manner in which Mike Pence related to the man on the top of his ticket.

There’s certainly good news for the Trump camp. Pence’s calm manner will make Republicans who are troubled about Trump’s volatility and inexperience feel comforted that there would be an adult in the room in a Trump White House.  Some will conclude that it reflects well on Donald Trump that he has selected a capable and seasoned politician for the number two slot.

However, at a different level, there will be scrutiny about the manner in which Pence appeared to achieve his narrow win by seeming to be go “rogue” on Trump.  At times Pence articulated positions that are at odds with the Trump campaign, or simply provided far more detailed opinion on an issue than Trump himself has ever been able to articulate. More important, Pence appeared to consciously choose to selectively not engage in some of the ugly realities of Donald Trump’s campaign. Challenged repeatedly by Kaine to defend Trump -- against the specific allegations about taxes, or about Trump’s more heinous direct quotes – Pence fell back into a “rope-a-dope” abdication of specifics, instead sloughing off Kaine’s attacks as just so many inaccurate quotes or hyperbole.  It could have been interpreted as a clever way to parry the thrusts… but it also could have been viewed as an unwillingness to stand tall with his boss, shoulder to shoulder in the trenches.

Indeed, Pence appeared to have won the debate against Kaine… but, in so doing, to have done far more to help himself than to have helped Donald Trump.  With Kaine ripping into Trump on a wide array of issues and Pence choosing to not take the bait, Pence looked good on tv – but allowed a great deal of incoming to score direct hits on his boss.

And, in carrying himself with a poised, unruffled demeanor, Pence may have come across to many as a more palatable Republican Presidential candidate than Donald Trump. 

Does all of this help -- or hurt -- Donald Trump?

Mike Pence has actually put his boss in a very tough position: he has demonstrated an effective debate style that is anathema to Donald Trump.  Indeed, for the next five days, Trump will read over and over again about how Pence outperformed Trump. How will this affect the brittle ego of Donald Trump? Will he think that changing his style in the debate is tantamount to an admission that Pence bested him?

So consider this debate a possible Pyrrhic victory for Trump-Pence. The more lasting impact of this debate may well be the comparison voters make between Trump and Pence than any particular conclusion about Pence and Kaine. After all, the Oscar that the VP nominees compete for is “Best Supporting Actor.” In the long view of history, Pence may have won the debate, but Kaine may have helped his candidate more.

Let’s take a quick step back to put this interesting night in context.

Once upon a time in America, Vice-Presidential candidates were selected in part on their potential as pit-bulls  willing to rip into the opposition presidential candidate so that they own running mate could appear statesmanlike and above the fray.

Though largely for the worse, Donald Trump has changed just about everything about Presidential politics, and this time-honored VP requirement has also been inverted. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine were chosen precisely because the candidates at the top of the ticket were at best polarizing and, at worst – clearly the more prevalent scenario –  rated by undecided voters as less appealing than the toxic sludge a quarter-mile downstream from the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown.

The hope was that the Vice Presidential Debate would have little of the rude interruptions and seeming coke-snorting enmity that Donald Trump brought to the first Presidential debate. Nor, for that matter, was it likely to produce any of the scalpel-sharp switchblades that Hillary Clinton plunged into a punch-drunk Trump as the clock ticked past his bedtime.

In this corner, meet Tim Kaine. If you want to know why Tim Kaine was chosen by Hillary Clinton, read the BTRTN post of June 24, in which Tom explained that it was largely a rigorous process of elimination led Hillary Clinton to select Tim Kaine’s as her VP, enabling my brother to predict Kaine’s selection as the VP choice a full month before it happened.  Kaine was the last man standing – and we do mean man -- because he is clean as a whistle, is not sitting in a Senate seat that risked being flipped, and because at the time Hillary thought that her prospects in the general election were sufficiently strong that she didn’t need to make a high-risk high-potential-reward pick like Elizabeth Warren, or go for a far-left candidate to pander to the Bernie babies. 

A genuinely nice guy, Tim Kaine is as much of an attack dog as a chocolate-brown schnauzer flashing sad brown eyes while angling for an extra strip of dried duck treat.  The worry in Camp Clinton: could Tim Kaine be mean enough to ruthlessly rip into Trump, exploiting the week’s fresh batch of Trump follies, including hugely embarrassing tax revelations, a bizarre vendetta against a former Miss Universe, and an unhinged 4:30 a.m. twitter-gasm that gave the country an all new reason to worry about Trump’s temperament to field the famous hypothetical “3:00 a.m. phone call.” The worry about Kaine was that he is the not-ready-for-Reality-TV-Player, that he would be Mr. Rogers going mana-a-mano with Captain Kangaroo in an epic C-SPAN boredom-fest.

In the opposing corner, meet Mike Pence, who appears to have been chosen by Donald Trump largely because, uh, well, because he would agree to be Donald Trump’s running mate.  The little-known Indiana governor was never apparently Trump’s real choice. Rather, the Trump kids insisted that he be chosen by their Dad, simply because all they were looking for was the box of baking soda that you put in the refrigerator, forget about, and hope that it actually will absorb foul odors. Mike Pence had been staring at barely even odds of being re-elected governor of Indiana, so the VP nod from Trump must have seemed to him like going to an Oprah taping the day they were giving out Kia Elantras instead of Glade sample packs.

Wonder Bread looks aside, Governor Pence should never be confused with that bygone era of Midwestern Republican centrism and bi-partisan consensus; he is actually not a warm, wise Hoosier Daddy. This is the guy who enacted the crazy legislation that supposedly protected bakeries from being forced to prepare gay wedding cakes, triggering Indiana corporations from Eli Lilly to to freak out in vigorous protest. Mike Pence holds tightly to some truly bedrock conservative positions, and comes to politics with the practiced presentation style of a man who in fact began his career as a talk radio host.

There was little doubt that Governor Pence had the evening's harder job. Start with the fact that he was saddled with Trump’s addled performance in the first Presidential debate. A Pence loss in the VP debate could have been devastating.  But the real challenge was intellectual and philosophical. Mike Pence was hired for this job to give Donald Trump’s candidacy the patina of legitimate Republican and conservative orthodoxy.  As such, Pence must have known that every question thrown at him would be essentially ask him to reconcile his conservative positions with the new and highly provocative stances taken by the Republican Party candidate.

So the battle was joined: an adorable puppy asked to take role of pit-bull was pitted against a seasoned conservative talk show host who had to be careful not to be too conservative.

As often happens, the person who decided to be himself won.  

Mike Pence decided at some point in the opening half-hour to not try to be Donald Trump’s water boy, but to say the things that were authentic to Mike Pence. Tim Kaine, meanwhile, competed very effectively for “Best Supporting Actor,” losing himself in the role of assailant.

Tim Kaine came out of the gate far too eager to prove to the Clinton-ites back home that he could be that aggressive attacker they wanted him to be.  Generally a genial and cordial man – two parts altar boy and three parts junior high soccer coach – Kaine was hyperactive for the first twenty minutes of the debate, interrupting Pence and appearing pleased to have memorized complex talking points.  Later, Kaine would settle down, and would score some of his most effective punches in the second half of the debate. But the visual imagery of the debate was established early, and it was a sharp contrast between an overwrought energizer bunny and the calm, contained Pence, who seemed to claim justifiable umbrage at the vitriol of Kaine’s barrage.

When simply reading the transcript of this debate – or listening to it on the radio with no visual imagery – you might have thought that Kaine won it. Repeatedly throughout the evening, he was in command of fact and detail, he was able to construct thorough, well-reasoned answers that touched on both advocacy for his ticket’s positions and a sharp rebuke of the opposition’s.  Yet the visuals told a different story. Kaine spent far too much time directing his answers to the moderator rather than to the viewing audience at home, and the vaguely manic edge in his giddy enthusiasm made him look like the well-prepared goody-goody student rather than a measured and thoughtful leader.

But the line of his attack was relentless and often had Pence on his heels. Kaine’s strategy was entirely based on forcing Pence to defend the more heinous of Trump’s positions. Repeatedly, Kaine brought up Mexican “rapists,” Trump’s well document misogynist comments, the ban on Muslims, and there did not appear to be a single subject that Kaine could not link back to Donald Trump’s taxes. 

Pence, too, appeared to be following a scripted Trump-team playbook at the outset, and he was weakest when played the Trump family game of accusing adversaries of their own worst sins. Implausibly, Pence tried to label the Clinton campaign as a relentless and deceitful campaign of insults, buying into Trump's “general amnesia” theory that people would conveniently forget that his own campaign that had been defined by his ability to weaken opponents by insult: “low energy” Jeb, “little” Marco, and “lyin’” Ted.

As if sensing that the Trump game plan was weak, Pence shifted in real-time to a strategy of going with his gut. Like a famous Republican VP nominee of times past, he went rogue.

Pence refused Kaine’s repeated challenge to defend Trump’s specific positions, waving Kaine off and acting as if the accusations were not serious and could be casually dismissed.

Pence engaged vastly more effectively than his boss on matters of international diplomacy, providing far more detailed command of Middle East hotspots than his boss – perhaps a low bar, but cleared with obvious ease. Pence was far more willing to label Vladimir Putin as a thug and a bully than Trump. This will make for ample grist on the talk show circuit.

Finally, Pence took one seismic gamble: that the impression left in the room is vastly more important than whatever pounding he would take in subsequent days from the fact-checkers.  As such, Pence attempted to dismiss several of Kaine’s more odious Trump quotes – and Pence quotes – as simply inaccurate. Most notably, Pence vehemently denied ever having called Vladimir Putin a “stronger leader than Barack Obama.” That supposed refutation did not survive the evening: before midnight, CNN was playing the clip. But, to Pence’s strategy, by then most viewers were tucked in bed with doubt about who actually said what.

Pence’s rope-a-dope included a seeming intent to just play out the clock on key issues. Challenged by both Kaine and CBS moderator Elaine Quijano to address exactly how and when Donald Trump would accomplish his stated goal of deporting eleven million undocumented aliens, Pence effectively ignored the question and merely repeated the long-established elements of Trump’s immigration proposal rather than risk creating controversy by taking on the issue of deportation.

Similarly, Pence evaded answering a direct question about the reports that Donald Trump has very possibly paid no Federal taxes in the past 18 years. Instead, Pence turned the issue to make the point that Trump was a fresh candidate who had spent his career in business rather than government, and was merely using existing tax code for maximum personal benefit.

Finally, Governor Pence did a far more effective job of raising the vulnerabilities in the Clinton armor than had his own boss. Pence managed to introduce the Clinton Foundation and the email issues and use each to neutralize some of Kaine’s more aggressive charges.

Make no mistake, Tim Kaine was not sitting idly by and letting all this stand. He was withering in the manner that he equated Trump’s failure to pay taxes with an unwillingness to support our troops after 9/11, our vets, and all of the essential functions of government. He was extremely prepared to take on questions about the Clinton Foundation, offering both a spirited endorsement of its achievements (“rated more highly than the Red Cross”) and contrasting it with the sleaze of the Trump Foundation. Asked about improving law enforcement and community relations, Kaine pasted Pence with Trump’s “stop and frisk” policy.

Kaine’s became stronger and bolder as the night proceeded. He was exceptionally confident in his recollection of verbatim quotes, and repeatedly insisted that the fact-checkers and the video would prove his version of events to be accurate.  Further, he was relentless… repeatedly returning to the litany of Trump’s racism, misogyny, bigotry, ignorance, and recklessness on matters of global security. His most memorable moment in the evening was when he said that "six times" he had challenged Pence to defend Trump, and that Pence had at each occasion refused to engage.

The most dramatic exchange of the evening was when moderator Quijano asked each candidate to reflect on how their deep religious beliefs informed their political life. Kaine eloquently detailed how firmly he understood that deep religious opposition to the death penalty must take a back seat to his governmental role of upholding the law. In contrast, Pence appeared to take the position that his personal religious opposition to abortion was more important to him than enforcing existing government law. It was a telling exchange, and may have been Kaine’s finest moment.

For all the aggressive attacking, the obfuscation and the dodging, it was still a more substantive and policy-driven debate than the carnival atmosphere in the first Presidential debate. And for all the heated rhetoric, you got the sense that both men deep down understood that the other was simply doing the job he had to do. They each took the opportunity in the course of the debate to declare their respect for each other, particularly in the conversation about faith. Kaine and Pence are both seasoned professional politicians, and that alone made the debate more palatable than the excruciating discomfort of watching a major party candidate for the Presidency of the United States fat-shaming a beauty pageant contestant.

Kaine, in my view, did win the “Best Supporting Actor” award, selflessly departing his own comfort zone to ensure that the evening was largely a prosecution of candidate Trump.

Pence may have technically “won the debate,” but the true question is whether he won it for his ticket, or for his personal brand.

So you can conclude that Kaine did his job and Pence helped himself.

But the real conclusion is that by many measures, Donald Trump lost. 

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