This was supposed to be the boring debate, less about personality (because Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence were thought to have none), more about policy, but it turned out to be about both and not a stellar night for either. On foreign policy, Pence uttered nonsense—much of it repetitions of Donald Trump’s nonsense—but Kaine did a mixed job rebutting it.
Pence repeatedly blamed Hillary Clinton for the rise of ISIS, claiming that the United States had won the war in Iraq until she insisted on withdrawing all troops from Iraq, thus creating a vacuum which ISIS filled. Kaine responded, correctly, that it was President George W. Bush who signed the treaty requiring a total pullout by the end of 2011—and it was Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki who, once Obama entered office, refused to sign a new treaty allowing a small number of troops to stay on.
However, Kaine did not point out, as he could have, that ISIS took off in 2014, one year after Clinton left her job as secretary of state. It is also a big stretch for Pence to claim, as he did several times, that Clinton was “the architect of Obama’s foreign policy,” when in fact Obama was the architect and her State Department played mainly a supporting role. (Kaine didn’t make this point for obvious reasons.)
Pence attacked the Iran nuclear deal, as Trump and others have, saying that the deal put no limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions after it expires. This is true, but the deal expires in 10 years—some crucial portions of it in 25 years—and by that time, Iran, if it still wants nukes, would have to rebuild a program that the deal had largely dismantled. By comparison, without the deal, Iran could have built an A-bomb in a few months. Pence also complained that we gave Iran $150 billion as a reward—but that money consisted of Iran’s own assets, which had been frozen as part of sanctions levied against Iran for starting a nuclear program. It was always clear that if Iran dismantled its program, the sanctions would be lifted—and that’s what the deal, signed by the United States and five other nations in addition to Iran, did.
But Pence’s broader and possibly more powerful arguments—that the United States is less safe than it was eight years ago, that ISIS is overrunning territory in Iraq and Syria, that Russia is “dictating terms” to us, and that we have to “rebuild” our military—went largely unanswered by Kaine.
First, ISIS is losing vast swaths of territory, thanks to U.S. airstrikes and coordinated Arab-Kurdish ground incursions (though, granted, after ISIS first took those swaths). Second, Russia’s stance in Syria is no less secure than ours. Third, President Obama’s military budget for this year amounts to $608 billion, and the total amount he’s spent in his two terms exceeds the sum that George W. Bush spent by $816 billion. The fact, as Pence recited, that we have “the smallest Navy since 1916” is irrelevant, since just one modern aircraft carrier (and we have 10) could sink the entire Navy of 100 years ago in short order. (I’m waiting for someone, anyone, who’s dealt this argument to ask back: “Are you suggesting that you would trade our current Navy with the Navy of way back then?”)
Pence also misrepresented the early Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia—and here, Kaine argued back pretty well. What went wrong with the reset, asked moderator Elaine Quijano? “Vladimir Putin,” Kaine answered. And that’s true. When Obama and Clinton (who was very much at the forefront of this policy) initiated the “reset,” the Russian president of the time, Dmitry Medvedev, responded well. It resulted in the New START nuclear arms–reduction treaty, a cooperative plan to counter nuclear proliferation, an agreement by Russia to stop the sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran (which involved refunding Iran’s payment), and fairly warm relations all round. All that changed when Putin once again became president. Bolstered by a (temporarily) strengthened economy, he acted on his long-simmering resentments—about the implosion of the Soviet empire, the enlargement of NATO to include many former members of that empire, and the growing appeal of the West among several of them, especially neighboring Ukraine—and put a chill on the Obama-Medvedev détente.
Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine not because Obama was weak but because he feared his own country’s weakness—and he knew that no American president would actually go to war against Russia for Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. (Was Pence suggesting that Trump might do so? Doubtful, given, among many other things, Trump’s admiration for Putin.) Pence also blamed Obama-Clinton for Russia’s invasion of Georgia—forgetting that Putin made that move when George W. Bush was president. (Was he suggesting that Bush was weak?)
Again, Kaine didn’t tangle with these points.
Neither candidate answered Quijano’s most substantive questions. What would you do to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria? Kaine replied, “Let’s start with not praising Vladimir Putin as a great dealer”—clever, but not an answer. Pence did no better. How would you deal with North Korea’s nuclear program and its attempts to build an intercontinental missile? Pence said he’d “go back to the days of peace through strength,” without offering any specifics, then turned to allegations of corruption in the Clinton Foundation. Kaine disputed those allegations but didn’t get back to North Korea, except to note that China has joined the United States in some sanctions against North Korea—but this is small stuff, as he probably knows, compared what needs to be done to halt Kim Jong-un’s ambitions.
Kaine spent much of the night reciting outrageous statements that Donald Trump has made and asking Pence whether he agreed with them. Pence denounced these recitations as part of a Clinton-Kaine “campaign of insults.” Pence definitely came off less as far less unhinged than his ticket-leader—and so may emerge as the GOP’s conservative leader for the future—but neither man showed much presidential timber. Then again, in an election when they’ve both been even less visible than most aspiring veeps, that might not matter.