Mike Pence Stabilized the GOP Ticket

At least until Donald Trump gets his phone back.

Mike Pence listens during the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University on Tuesday in Farmville, Virginia.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Zingers: End them. If there was one response that seemed to really speak to the however many millions of people who were watching the vice presidential debate, presumably because of a lost bet, it was Mike Pence’s, mocking Tim Kaine for his “pre-done” lines.

Because, to the misfortune of the West, Kaine and his preppers did appear to think that “lines” would be a wise tactic to employ—again. Just as Hillary Clinton, in her poor first segment of last week’s debate, used “Trumped-up trickle down,” Kaine inexplicably had his own: referring to Pence as Trump’s “apprentice”—just like the teevee show!—and an unclever contrast between Trump as the “you’re fired” president and Clinton as the “you’re hired” president. God, stop.

Interruptions also didn’t suit Kaine. Though he would calm down as the night wore on, the tenor of the debate was something of an inverse of the first Trump-Clinton matchup: The Democrat seemed less in control of himself, while the Republican was an immoveable object. There was no need for so many interruptions; Kaine came across as overeager where he didn’t need to be. He’s not a rude person in real life. There was no need to play one on television.

Like Clinton, Kaine’s best points came when speaking in paragraphs and responding to the paragraphs of others. He made a strong point about Pence’s record in support of Social Security privatization, to which Pence’s best response was a rehashed Reagan line. Kaine took an elegant stance on criminal justice reform and hung Trump’s desire to expand “stop-and-frisk” around Pence’s neck. Later in the debate—again, when not interrupting Pence!—he crisply delivered a cool denunciation of Trump’s unseemly admiration for Vladimir Putin. Kaine’s best moment, though, may have been this effort to stuff Trump’s rhetoric in Pence’s face and force an answer:

There is a fundamental respect issue here. And I just want to talk about the tone that’s set from the top. Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He’s called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting. I don’t like saying that in front of my wife and my mother. He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a POW, and said he wasn’t a hero because he’d been captured. He said African Americans are living in hell. And he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen. If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws, you can’t have somebody at the top who demeans every group that he talks about. And I cannot believe that Gov. Pence will defend the insult-driven campaign that Donald Trump has run.

None of this, though—none of it—seemed to send Pence on the run. He changed the subject ably here, for example, turning the subject straight to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment.” He made all the points that Donald Trump meant to make in the first debate but didn’t, because he can’t focus for more than five seconds.

It’s hard to know who spent more time preparing, but Pence was better prepared. He knew that Kaine would come after him with all of this, and it wasn’t in his interest to spend his time defending it. It was to deflect to Clinton’s own questionable comments, votes, positions, or to coolly laugh off Kaine’s repeated charges. Kaine allowed himself to show some frustration with Pence’s immobility early on, on both Russia and Trump’s tax returns. Pence wouldn’t bite. Pence seemed to enjoy supporting Donald Trump, with cheer and true belief. Maybe he even does.

Pence’s performance may help carry the Trump ticket through the rest of the week without further losses, and then the election will resume Sunday night when the presidential candidates debate in St. Louis. Kaine’s goal was to keep Trump in the spotlight, even if it made for a jarring performance at times. Pence’s goal was to provide a measure of stability. They both may have succeeded. In the moment, Pence achieving his goal was more important.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.