If you’re a traditional conservative Republican, 2016 has been a remarkably frustrating year. The GOP nominee is barely a conservative by most senses of the term. He has no longstanding ties to communities of pro-lifers, gun owners, traditional Christians, or other perspectives that, up until recently, made up the backbone of the party. The party’s convention in Cleveland was an odd celebration of the virtues of one man, instead of the values and policies that are supposed to unite the whole party.
But for everything else that’s gone wrong, Mike Pence walked up onto the stage last night and did his job, and did it well. In a chaotic year, cool competence seems miraculous.
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.
Pence demonstrated that Trump made the best possible choice out of his remaining running-mate options. The adjectives that keep coming up in the post-debate analyses 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.
What an insufferable schmuck! Kaine entered tonight with a reputation as a likeable, even-keeled, mainstream Democrat. He walked upon the stage and set that reputation on fire. You know the Republican had a good night when the left-of-center commentators don’t even try to argue that he was likable.
Kaine was 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 crosstalk. For many Americans watching, this was their first introduction to Kaine. It’s hard to believe they came away impressed or feeling warm.
The Clinton campaign thinks Kaine helps them a lot with Catholic voters. I notice he talked about how his Catholic faith informed and fueled his opposition to the death penalty, but he’s somehow fine with taxpayer-funded abortions, including partial-birth abortion. If there’s any kind of abortion in America that Tim Kaine wants to restrict or ban, he didn’t mention it last night.
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 the coming Democratic triage in the immediate post-debate assessment from Democratic-leaning commentators 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, right?
Josh Kraushaar of National Journal:
Mike Pence’s commanding performance against Tim Kaine offered a tantalizing preview of where Republicans would be if they had nominated a more traditional presidential nominee.
On issue after issue, Pence put Kaine on the defensive, forcing him to defend Hillary Clinton’s positions on the Russia reset, her email server’s security, President Obama’s health care law, and the administration’s current policy in Syria. Kaine put pressure on Pence over Trump’s own litany of insults. If voters are judging on policy, Republicans hold the edge on many of the election’s core issues. If this election is about Trump’s character, Clinton wins by default.
If Trump loses the election, he won’t be able to blame Mike Pence.
The Missing Issue: Obamacare
Remember Obamacare? Wasn’t that the big issue that fueled GOP victories in 2010 and 2014? Isn’t it running into one problem after another, as more Americans find themselves paying higher premiums, higher co-pays and higher deductables under the mockingly-named “Affordable Care Act”? Donald Trump didn’t mention Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act once in the first debate. Neither did Lester Holt or Hillary Clinton, of course.
Finally, last night Mike Pence brought up Obamacare. Tim Kaine, noticeably, did not defend it:
I think he’s a very fitting running mate for Hillary Clinton, because in the wake of a season where American families are struggling in this economy under the weight of higher taxes and Obamacare and the war on coal and the stifling avalanche of regulation coming out of this administration, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine want more of the same. It really is remarkable that they actually are advocating a trillion dollars in tax increases, which I get that. You tried to raise taxes here in Virginia and were unsuccessful.
But a trillion dollars in tax increases, more regulation, more of the same war on coal, and more of Obamacare that now even former President Bill Clinton calls Obamacare a crazy plan. But Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine want to build on Obamacare. They want to expand it into a single-payer program. And for all the world, Hillary Clinton just thinks Obamacare is a good start.
Here’s Bill Clinton’s full comment, in context. It’s not a blanket denunciation of Obamacare, but it acknowledges what most Democrats prefer to ignore: Millions of Americans are paying more, under a law that was touted as saving them money.
If you’re already on Medicare or if you get enough subsidies on a modest income then you can afford your healthcare. But the people who are getting killed in this deal are small business people and individuals who make just a little too much to get in these subsidies. Why? Because they’re not organized. They don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies and they’re getting whacked. So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have healthcare and then the people are out there busting it sometimes 60 hours a week wind up with their premiums double and their coverage cut in half. It’s the craziest thing in the world.
Hopefully Donald Trump remembers to mention Obamacare Sunday night.
File this under, “the kind of statement that would get a Republican reamed for days.”
I saw some mainstream reporters saying this was one of Pence’s stronger moments:
I’m a strong Second Amendment supporter. But I’ve got a lot of scar tissue, because when I was governor of Virginia, there was a horrible shooting at Virginia Tech, and we learned that through that painful situation that gaps in the background record check system should have been closed and it could have prevented that crime, and so we’re going to work to do things like close background record checks.
Am I the only one who heard that as an awkward at best, inappropriate at worst metaphor?
ADDENDA: I ended up doing a Facebook Live last night with Cam Edwards, walking down the streets of Farmville, discussing the town’s unique history in the Civil War and Civil Rights movement, and what we expected in the debate.