The vice presidential debate does not move votes, and will not move votes. People commit to parties, and then they commit to the top of the ticket. Almost no one backs a ticket (or switches sides) because of the running mate. This fact—that these debates, in a real sense, don’t matter—makes it tempting to treat them as pure political theater, judged on style and poise.
By that standard, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence won the vice presidential debate with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, full stop. Pence, who worked in conservative talk radio before moving to electoral politics, was calm, smooth, and steady. He was an effective advocate for conservative ideology, a polished voice for lower taxes, less redistribution, a more aggressive posture on the global stage (against Russia especially), and new restrictions on abortion. Against Kaine—who interrupted, cross-talked, and spoke in a rapid, hurried clip—Pence looked commanding, almost presidential. And on Twitter, pundits and observers began immediate speculation about the vice presidential nominee’s prospects for 2020, should Donald Trump lose the election for president.
But politics isn’t pure theater, and we shouldn’t use that standard. Who performed better is less important than whether the candidates were honest and truthful. Whether Kaine or Pence was polished and polite matters less than whether they gave a fair and good-faith accounting of themselves and their politics to the public. And by that standard, Mike Pence was a clear and abysmal failure.
That is not to say that Kaine was a paragon of virtue. The Virginia senator is a long-time politician, accustomed to high political pressure. When pressed by the moderator, CBS News anchor Elaine Quijano, on certain specifics about Hillary Clinton—from her emails to her policies for the Middle East and South Asia—Kaine demurred or changed the subject or offered half an answer. He demagogued on the issue of Trump’s tax avoidance, a clean attack around which Kaine tied a yellow ribbon. (“It was a fight to avoid paying taxes so that he wouldn’t support the fight against terror,” Kaine said. “He wouldn’t support troops.”) But that’s typical. That’s ordinary behavior from a normal political figure.
Pence, by contrast, was extraordinary.
Most vice presidential nominees are eager to defend their running mates, to put their reputations on the line as advocates for the men (and now women) who would elevate them into the second highest office in American government.
Not Mike Pence.
Rather than demur or decline when confronted with Donald Trump’s rhetoric and ideas, Pence denied that any of it happened.
“I can’t imagine,” said Kaine at the opening of the debate, “how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven selfish ‘me first’ style of Donald Trump.” Pence had a simple reply. “Let me say first and foremost that, senator, you and Hillary Clinton would know a lot about an insult-driven campaign. It really is remarkable,” he said, before accusing Kaine of launching an “avalanche of insults.”
These insults? These insults were quotes. Kaine was quoting Donald Trump, telling viewers that Trump had called Mexicans “rapists and criminals” (true); that he had called women “slobs, pigs, dogs, and disgusting” (true); and that he had attacked an Indiana-born federal judge “and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican” (also true).
Despite the obvious truth of everything on display, Pence’s response was to call these quotes—taken almost verbatim from Trump—a kind of “insult” against the Republican ticket. And so it continued for the next 90 minutes.
When Kaine accused Trump of praising Russian president Vladimir Putin, asking Pence to defend his running mate, the Indiana governor denied it, shaking his head at the idea that Trump would say something positive about a “small and bullying leader.” But it happened. Just last month, at a national security forum hosted by NBC News, Trump defended Putin by citing his popularity (“Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating”) and giving him credit for his position in the country. “Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system,” said Trump, just a month ago, on live television. “But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.” When asked about this the next day, Mike Pence agreed. “I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” he said.
When Kaine pushed Pence to defend Trump’s comment that more nations should have nuclear weapons, Pence shook his head (again) and protested: “He never said that.” But again, the record shows that Trump said exactly that. This past March, during a CNN–televised town hall in Milwaukee, Trump questioned the wisdom of nuclear nonproliferation. “You have so many countries—China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia—you have so many countries right now that have them,” he said, “Now, wouldn’t you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”
To repeat: This happened. It was broadcast to millions of people. But Mike Pence denied it.
When Kaine said that Trump wants a “deportation force” to round up unauthorized immigrants, Pence denied that as well, despite the fact that—during a televised interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe—Trump said exactly that. “You’re going to have a deportation force, and you’re going to do it humanely,” said the Republican presidential nominee, of removing immigrants from the country.
And when Kaine hit Trump for backing punishment against women who have abortions, Mike Pence widened his eyes in disbelief, denying that this was on the table for the GOP leader. “Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that punished women who made the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.” Again, Trump said this. On television. “Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?” Chris Matthews asked of Trump during a town hall with voters in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.”
Again and again and again, Tim Kaine confronted Mike Pence on statements from his running mate, and again and again, Pence either ignored them or denied them outright, shaking his head and giving the audience a look of smarmy incredulity, as if Kaine were reading couplets from the Necronomicon. At a certain point, Pence even doubled down on the idea that Hillary Clinton had run an offensive, insult-driven campaign.
“I mean, to be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them,” Pence said, “he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a ‘basket of deplorables.’ ”
We don’t know Pence’s mental state. Maybe he wasn’t lying. Maybe he had never heard Trump’s words or statements. But we do know that Pence is a living, breathing person with a vested stake in this presidential election. And we know that, since the summer, he has been an intimate part of the Republican campaign, following Trump’s behavior and accounting for his missteps. We know that, before he was picked for the ticket, Pence criticized Trump for some of the rhetoric he now denies (specifically, the ban on Muslim entry to the United States), and we know that Pence himself said words that he later denied to Tim Kaine and the debate audience.
Mike Pence was better at this debate. He was smoother, more polished. More confident. And for 90 minutes, he used that polish and confidence to deny Trump’s rhetoric and behavior and gaslight the country that has borne witness to them. To call this winning is to act as if nothing matters. But vice presidents stand a real chance of sitting in the Oval Office. It matters. If Pence “won,” it’s because he denied the truth even existed.
Maybe this was a preview of what will happen if the Republican nominee loses his race for the presidency. There won’t be recriminations or questions. The GOP won’t have to answer for anything. Instead, Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—and even Mike Pence—will shake their heads and give looks of smarmy incredulity and pretend as if nothing happened, as if they didn’t support a white nationalist’s bid for the world’s most important elected office.