Pence won hands down, in much the way I thought Hillary won the first presidential debate: He was simply better than his opponent. That’s not entirely fair, because I think Pence came across more likable and presidential than Hillary did and much more likable and presidential than Tim Kaine.
In fact, going into this, I had mostly convinced myself that Kaine was a more likable and decent guy than the person I saw tonight. Kaine was often smarmy and smug, condescending and rude..
At first Pence tried to return fire on the same terms (which made the crosstalk infuriatingly annoying), but he eventually steadied himself and became more mature and serious. In terms of his demeanor, and in many of his answers, Pence had gravitas and moral seriousness. He was very effective when attacking Hillary Clinton.
But he was not very effective in defending Donald Trump. And I think that’s why in the long run tonight’s debate wasn’t very helpful for the Trump campaign. Over and over again, Pence simply denied that Trump had said any of the inconvenient, indefensible, inappropriate things that Trump has said.
That means the Trump campaign will very likely repeat the disaster of the first presidential debate. Trump lost that debate narrowly – more narrowly than Pence won tonight – but Trump was devastated in the post-debate spin wars. Pence’s denials will be fact checked all week, and that will hurt Trump. Because, for the most part, all of the Trump greatest hits Kaine brought up were accurate. That won’t help the campaign, though it will help Pence in 2020. In fact, if the story line becomes “Pence couldn’t defend Trump,” I fully expect Trump to publicly insult Pence in the next few days as punishment.
I suspect that the Clinton campaign asked Kaine to take one for the team. He was annoying, smug, condescending and shrill. Either that was really him, which is bad. Or he let tens of millions of Americans think it was really him, which is bad. But he got the Clinton talking points out there and advanced the narrative as they wanted it advanced. The point was to keep Donald Trump’s flaws as the conversation topic for another week. I think in that sense, Kaine won – or at least his loss was Hillary’s gain.