VP Debate Recap: Whipping Out That Mexican Thing

tkvmp3If last week’s first Trump-Clinton clash was expected to draw a Super Bowl-sized TV audience approaching 100 million, Monday’s vice presidential debate was more like an NBA Final (30+ million for this year’s Cavs-Warriors game 7) or perhaps a World Series (50+ million for Giants-Royals game 7 in 2014). It surely didn’t come close to the most watched VP debate in history — Sarah Palin’s tête-à-tête with Joltin’ Joe Biden in 2008 drew 70 million viewers — more than any of the presidential debates that cycle. But even though Palin exceeded expectations that night (which is to say remained sentient and generally avoided incomprehensibility), it didn’t do much to boost the McCain-Palin ticket, just as Lloyd Bentsen’s famous verbal smackdown of Dan Quayle in 1988 didn’t stop the latter from becoming vice president (a phrase I still have trouble writing). As a talking-head political consultant on cable astutely observed the other day, why should voters care about a VP debate when they don’t actually care who their candidate chooses as a running mate?

Be that as it may, a whole lot of voters did make room in their Monday to watch the veepsters go at it, and it was worth tuning in to see how Mike Pence and Tim Kaine would work to overcome the broad polling negatives of their ticket overlords. For Pence, a severely conservative red-state governor, job one was to hijack the news cycle away from Trump’s seven-day running media shit show. Pence’s larger mission was to show himself to the country as a sane and credible DJT alter ego, equipped to spend four years standing alongside Trump poised to grab the Donald’s fleshy arm as it reaches for the big red button. (And there is a big red button.) Kaine’s task was narrower: remind viewers as often as possible that the race at the top of the ticket pits crazy against not crazy, and frame Hillary Clinton as the political second coming of Mother Teresa. Piece of cake. Whatever their shortcomings as prosaic middle-aged white men who most Americans couldn’t pick out of a lineup, Pence and Kaine are seasoned pros who believe in both policy and preparation, so the expectation going in (as with Paul Ryan and Joe Biden four years ago) was for a debate heavier on substance and lighter on beauty pageant relitigation than last week’s cage match.

So how’d it go?

7:20. Forty minutes before go time, MSNBC asks First Lady of Indiana Karen Pence what advice she gave her husband. (BB wonders why he wasn’t asked that 13 months ago.) She seems like a lovely person (we first ladies have to stick together), at least until she offers that Donald Trump is “such a gentleman.”

7:40. Twenty minutes before the start, a commentator on Fox sums up Pence’s goal as reassuring the country “that Trump’s not a wild-eyed screwball who hates fat chicks.” Now that’s pith. And by the way if that was the mission it wasn’t accomplished, since Pence spent the night artfully dodging pretty much everything Trump.

8:05. Moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS opened with a question about what skills and qualities each has to step into the big role should the need arise. Kaine defines his role as being Clinton’s right hand person. “We trust her with the most important thing in our life” — their son in the military — while the prospect of Trump “scares us to death.” Gauntlet duly thrown down. Pence opens with Clinton’s “war on coal.” Base duly nodded to.

And that pretty much summed up the debate, five minutes in. Kaine spent 90 minutes, yes with way too many interruptions, trying to persuade us that Trump is scary, and Pence spent 90 minutes (mostly successfully) ignoring Kaine’s interruptions, trying to make a basic conservative case for a GOP ticket that doesn’t actually exist (or maybe in his mind will exist in 2020 with his name at the top).

Quijano asks Kaine why so many distrust Clinton. Kaine quickly pivots to birtherism – “I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven selfish me-first style of Donald Trump.” Pence comes back with “you and Hillary Clinton would know about an insult-driven campaign.” Pivots to Syria and Russia. Kaine interjects your guy loves himself some Putin. Pence goes back to Trump’s “extraordinary business acumen.” Kaine calls Pence “Donald Trump’s apprentice.” Kaine is in serious interrupt mode. Throws a big pile of Clinton foreign policy at Pence, who is not impressed.

8:16. Quijano says let’s turn to the economy and specifically debt. Pence says it’s “atrocious” that the Obama administration has doubled the national debt. Boasts that “I come from a state that works” and says Kaine as governor “left his state about $2 billion in the whole.” “You tried to raise taxes here in Virginia and you were not successful.” Note to Pence: you are not running for governor of Virginia. Second mention of “war on coal.” To his credit Pence is doing a pretty good job pressing the Republican critique of Obama’s economy.  Kaine replies that it’s a choice between a “you’re hired president” and a “you’re fired president.” Catchy but confusing. At some point you do have to actively defend the economy as the candidate running for a third term, which Kaine doesn’t really do.

8:21. Quijano dives into Trump’s taxes. “Does that seem fair to you?” Pence goes back to prior discussion, accusing Clinton-Kaine of advocating “more taxes…more spending, more deficits, more debt, more government.” He adds, “You can roll out the numbers … but this economy is struggling.” Quijano tries to pull Pence back into the fact that Trump pays as little taxes as possible. Pence says the tax returns show “he faced some pretty tough times” and explains that Trump “used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used, and he did it brilliantly.” Kaine: How do you know that since you haven’t seen his taxes? It’s a good point, but it’s inside baseball.

As the candidates continue to interrupt each other, moderator Quijano states the obvious : “The people at home cannot understand you when you speak over each other.” They continue to speak over each other.

8:25. Quijano moves to social security. How will you protect it against cuts? Kaine gives a suitably wonky answer focusing on payroll taxes. Pence, fulfilling everyone’s prediction that he would poach Ronald Reagan: “There they go again.” Says Trump will cut taxes to meet obligations of Social Security. This actually makes little sense, and Kaine again interrupts to try to rebut, but gets nowhere. Turns out you cannot actually make a focused argument through interruption.

8:28. Quijano, who is pretty clearly ill-equipped to control this interrupt-fest, does an about face to law enforcement and race relations. She is apparently determined to make sure that all nine planned “segments” intended in the format get covered. She poses a question: Do we ask too much of police officers? This sparks a genuinely interesting conversation. Kaine, pulling in his experience as a city mayor and governor, says community policing is the key. “That model still works but there are some other models that don’t work.” Namely: Trump and stop-and-frisk. He also works in guns — merges the facts of his (a) being a gun owner and (b) being governor when Virginia Tech happened. This is an effective answer. Pence, also effective, comes back “at the risk of agreeing with you” with an endorsement of community policing. He then goes after “the bad mouthing that comes from people who seize upon tragedy in the wake of police shootings… to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias and institutional racism and that really has got to stop.”

This could have led to a deeper substantive exchange in the hands of a more adept moderator, but Kaine is permitted to seize an opportunity to hijack the conversation by going negative on Trump — things he says about Mexicans and women and John McCain as POW and by the way he says African-Americans are “living in hell” and by the way birtherism. Kaine launches another of his numerous “defend your presidential nominee” salvos: “I cannot believe that Gov. Pence will defend the insult driven campaign that Donald Trump has run.” Pence refuses to be baited, lets it go, so Quijano moves on to…

8:38. Immigration. Pence lays out the brief against Clinton-Kaine on immigration in a few short phrases and says “Donald Trump has a plan.” Returns to the “avalanche of insults” coming from Kaine: “Did you just hear that? Ours is an insult driven campaign?” Basket of deplorables!  Irredeemables! Okay we knew this was coming and Pence picked an apt moment to fling it. (Quijano is now policing the interruptions more stridently.) Kaine: “You will look in vain” waiting for Donald Trump to apologize for anything he has said. Then explains Clinton’s immigration policy. Kaine is pretty good once he gets rolling at shifting between attacks and policy and back to attacks and back to policy again. “They want to go house to house, school to school, business to business, and kick out 16 million people” and (yet again challenging Pence to defend Trump) “I cannot believe that Gov. Pence would support this.” After an exchange on ICE and mass deportation, Kaine again tries to bait Pence, this time with the Judge Curiel thing: “I can’t imagine you could defend that.” Again Pence doesn’t take the bait.

8:46. Quijano moves to national security and asks if the world is a safer place. Kaine touts some of Clinton’s experience and then hits the elephant head on: “Here’s her plan to defeat ISIL.” Throws out a few bullet points, then tosses in a canned line about how Trump “can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot.” Polishes it off with a broadside on Trump’s foibles on foreign policy — allies, nukes, all of it. Pence comes back with a quip: “Did you work on that a long time because that had a lot of really creative lines in it?” While this is lame his next gambit is solid: “America is less safe today than it was the day that Barack Obama because president … it’s absolutely inarguable.” This may or may not be “inarguable” but declarative statements of doom do tend to land. And Pence knows you can never go wrong by misusing the word “literally,” as in: Because Clinton failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq, ISIS was able to be “literally conjured up out of the desert.”

8:51. A worthwhile exchange on the merits of the Iran deal ensues, but moderator Quijano fails to see the opportunity to drive that conversation further, moving instead to domestic terrorism. She asks, what tools would you use to prevent home-grown attacks? Pence absurdly answers it in terms of reforming the immigration system. Kaine is better here, landing a blow: “We want to keep people out if they’re dangerous, Donald Trump said keep them out if they’re Muslim.” Pence, who has in the past publicly disagreed with Trump on this, prudently sticks to his unflappability mode and lets it pass.

8:54. Quijano turns us to intelligence and cyberwarfare. Pence: “Cyberwarfare is the new warfare of the asymmetrical enemies that we face in this country.” Nobody knows what that actually means. Pence sees a key pivot-attack opportunity: Hey everyone, let’s not forget that Hillary had a private server! One that very bad peeps might have hacked! Quijano interrupts him to move on to Syria, which seems actually not quite fair. Let the man re-prosecute Hillary’s emails for crying out loud. Kaine sees where this is going and jumps in to briefly defend her on emails.  Quijano with the assist: “we are moving on now.” If Pence wanted to push the email thing further this was a lost opportunity.

8:58. Quijano, on Syria, formulates the question well: “Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale?” Pence accuses Clinton of prioritizing a “Russian reset” as her top priority as Secretary of State, which led the Russians to invade Ukraine, and now Russia’s “small and bullying leader” Putin is dictating terms to the U.S. This might have been effective if it weren’t too damn hawkish: “We have got to begin to lean into this with strong, broad-shouldered American leadership … The provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” Yikes. It would be nice if Kaine would call out this intention to turn U.S. foreign policy into a festival of rampant military adventurism, but Kaine is silent, going instead after Trump‘s imagined business dealings with Russian oligarchs.

9:05. Having moved onto nukes, Kaine channels Ronald Reagan on proliferation: “some fool” will wreak havoc, and that’s who Gov. Pence is running with. To everyone’s surprise, Pence denies that he is running on a ticket with a guy bent on nuclear devastation. Awaiting fact checking.

9:07. Kaine, who has spent the debate identifying crazy Trump statements and policies that Pence refuses to get behind, decides it’s time to go into sum-it-up mode: six times I’ve asked him to defend his presidential candidate and he can’t. Pence replies that he’d be happy to answer answer them one by one. This seems like a fun and worthwhile path to go down, but yet again our overly clock-focused moderator rebuffs us and says it’s time to talk about…

9:08. Russia. Kaine makes the point that Trump is sleeping with Vladimir. Connects it to Trump’s tax returns. Pence replies with a string of classic non-denial denials: Well, thanks! Just trying to keep up with the insult-driven campaign! This is the alternative universe of Washington! Quijano asks Pence why Putin would respect a Trump administration. He goes back to the militaristic well: “We are going to rebuild our military.” I am pretty sure if Trump is elected we will see World War III by his first midterm election.

9:15 North Korea. What specific steps would you take to prevent NK from developing a missile capable of reaching the US? Pence, going in a novel direction: “we need to make a commitment to rebuilding our military.” Then shows his political chops by somehow turning a question on North Korea into a broadside (and a pretty effective one) against the Clinton Foundation. Kaine mounts a defense, and takes a few shots at Trump’s foundation and (of course, once more with feeling) his tax returns.

9:23. Moderator Quijano pulls out a big philosophical question: Can you discuss a time when you struggled to reconcile personal faith with a public policy position? Yes they can but you know what? Who gives a damn — we live in a secular democracy so keep it to yourself, guys. Kaine does find an excuse to take one more dig at Trump’s attitude toward Mexicans. Pence accuses Kaine of having “whipped out that Mexican thing again” (without first saying “pardon me while I whip this out”). Viewers at home collectively wince.

9:32. A final question about what each would do to reunify the country. Each assures us he would unify the country. Glad to hear it. We all feel preemptively unified. Over and out.

Verdict

One way to frame the campaign’s home stretch is to think about how Donald Trump expands his support beyond what seems like a ceiling of around 40%. This is perhaps how we should think about the VP debate: was Mike Pence able to bring new voters to Trump? Answer: not so much. Kaine wasn’t able to bring new voters to his ticket either, but he didn’t really need to. The news cycle narrative will be that Pence did well because he was (a) generally coherent, (b) not Trump, and (c) a little less annoyingly interruptive than Kaine (who surprisingly was not coached into figuring out how to look into the camera while speaking). But Kaine did manage to make sure that every bad thing we already know about Trump got another airing (or two or three), and Pence spent 90 minutes basically denying the existence of everything Trump has said and stood for for over a year. In terms of the numerical dynamics of the race it probably adds up to a whole lot of nothing — another VP debate in the books! — which is to say tune in Sunday for the real thing: Trump/Clinton round 2 in St. Lou.

A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.

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