No vice presidential debate has ever swung a presidential race. And in 2016, with two larger-than-life characters at the top of the Republican and Democratic tickets, that truism will surely hold.
But on the biggest night of their political lives, Gov. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana and Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia still performed a valuable service for Republican Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. They advanced the story, lobbing fresh attacks on each other’s bosses and delving into policy differences.
For Governor Pence, the debate was a welcome opportunity to move beyond the worst week of the Trump campaign. Mr. Trump was widely seen as having lost to Mrs. Clinton last week in their first debate, and made matters worse by continuing for days to go after a former Miss Universe whom he had once mocked. Then The New York Times got hold of bits of an old Trump tax return.
Pence faced a barrage of incoming from Senator Kaine, and in many cases, declined to defend Trump. That, in fact, may have been the smart strategy. Otherwise, Pence might have spent the entire debate playing defense, responding to accusations about Trump’s taxes, admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, demeaning comments about women, and birtherism.
Instead, Pence deflected and ignored much of Kaine’s assault. When Kaine asked Pence why he wasn’t defending Trump, Pence replied, “I’m happy to defend him” – and then continued to not defend him on many of the points.
When Kaine accused Trump of running an “insult-driven” campaign, Pence ignored the vast catalog of evidence and turned the slam back on his opponent. “Ours is an insult-driven campaign?” Pence interjected, with mock incredulity.
Then he ran for daylight: What about Clinton calling half of Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”? Pence countered.
It was a comeback that Trump had failed to make in his debate against Clinton – one of many missed opportunities that night. But one by one, Pence checked off those boxes, also raising the controversies around Clinton’s private email server and the family’s charitable foundation.
In a way, for Pence, it was a do-over debate – a way to score some points against Clinton that Trump failed to do last week, and show him how to keep his cool during a debate. (Clinton and Trump face off again on Oct. 9.)
And if Pence has his eye on 2020, as many observers suspect, he may well have helped himself. At the very least, Pence is now positioned to play a major role in helping the Republican Party pick up the pieces if Trump loses.
For Kaine, the debate was a chance to unload a torrent of sound bites against a Trump candidacy loaded with vulnerabilities. But he came in so aggressive, and interrupted so much, especially at first, that Pence was widely seen as winning on temperament – an important measure of whether a candidate is “presidential.”
“Kaine wins on substance, loses on style,” wrote independent pollster John Zogby.
Kaine got off some obviously rehearsed one-liners that may turn up in future Clinton campaign ads. More than once, he referred to Trump as the “you’re fired” candidate and Clinton, the “you’re hired” candidate. And he accused Trump of having a “personal Mount Rushmore” – President Putin, Kim Jong-un, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein.
“Oh, come on,” said Pence.
The tenor of the debate shifted markedly when the subject of faith came up. Both men are deeply religious – Kaine is Roman Catholic, Pence is a born-again Evangelical – and they spoke from the heart.
Moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News asked each to discuss a time when faith conflicted with governing. Kaine spoke of his struggle, as governor of Virginia, with the death penalty, which he opposes.
“It was very, very difficult to allow executions to go forward, but in circumstances where I didn't feel like there was a case for clemency, I told Virginia voters I would uphold the law, and I did,” Kaine said.
Pence didn’t offer a similar example, and instead used the opportunity to speak on “the sanctity of life.” He also offered warm words for Kaine. “I have a great deal of respect for Senator Kaine's sincere faith. I truly do,” he said.
Pence then turned to the Clinton-Kaine ticket’s support for abortion rights, including so-called “partial-birth abortion” (which Kaine had, in fact, once opposed).
But it was a respectful critique. And in a campaign nearly devoid of discussion on issues that matter to religious conservatives, a crucial element of the Republican base, Pence surely in that moment did his ticket some good.