It’s an open question as to how much a vice-presidential debate can change the dynamics of a presidential campaign, particularly one that features two well-known, divisive, deeply flawed nominees like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. With that in mind, and the minor stakes of tonight in perspective, Tuesday night was a big win for the Republican ticket.
Mike Pence demonstrated that Trump made the best possible choice out of his remaining options. The adjectives that keep coming up in the post-debate commentary were “unflappable”, “solid” and “reassuring.” Pence knows his stuff, was completely prepared and articulated his arguments quickly – and he had to articulate them quickly because Tim Kaine interrupted him relentlessly.
Kaine entered tonight with a reputation as a likeable, even-keeled, mainstream Democrat. He lost it quickly, interrupting with wild abandon and generally coming across as an over-caffeinated jerk, eager to insert canned lines that must have sounded great in rehearsal but generally fell flat or got lost in the cross-talk. For many Americans watching, this was their first real introduction to Kaine. It’s hard to believe they came away impressed or feeling warm. Did he seem like a man ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency? Or did he seem like your friend’s awkward, over-eager younger brother, eager to show off he could keep up with the big kids?
Some Democrats, such as Paul Begala on CNN, suggested Kaine’s aggressive, badgering assaults represented Kaine putting his campaign mission – attack Trump – ahead of his self-interest in coming across as a likeable, respectful human being. Perhaps that’s the case, but if that’s true, that means the Clinton campaign felt that the most important task they could achieve tonight was… attack Trump. (As if they hadn’t attacked him, nearly 24-7, since he won the nomination.)
Do you think there are many Americans out there, watching a vice-presidential debate, who haven’t heard the criticisms against Trump? Do you think that Trump’s supporters are backing him because they think he’s polite? Do you think the race is close because Hillary and the Democrats haven’t attacked Trump enough, or do you think it’s because not enough Americans think she’ll actually improve their lives in any meaningful ways?
You could see it in the immediate post-debate commentary predicting that the fact-checkers will rip apart Pence for his seeming obliviousness to Trump’s more incendiary statements. Of course, those fact-checks have to dominate the post-debate discussion. We couldn’t have Kaine’s insufferable interjections and Pence’s confident performance dominate the news cycle for the rest of the week, now could we?