For those like me who expected a boring debate between the two running mates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, each so low-key that wags called the event ‘The Battle of the Blands’, were surprised. It was quite lively though not very informative. The latter feature is not unexpected, since campaigns now put all their substantive positions on their websites and simply refer viewers to them and use the debates to paint broad-brush pictures of themselves and their opponents.
Usually the candidate of the party that had a bad first debate is the one who comes charging out of the gate, trying to make up for the poor showing, while the other party’s candidate defends, to avoid throwing away their gains. But the roles were reversed. Kaine came out like a hyper-caffeinated terrier, interrupting Pence so frequently at the beginning that even I, who enjoys verbal sparring as much as the next person, wished he would give it a rest. He calmed down after the first half-hour and got much better as the evening wore on, but first impressions tend to linger and I suspect that many people found him annoying.
It was clear that Kaine’s goal during the debate was to repeat as often as possible all the appalling things that Donald Trump has said and challenge Pence to defend them. Pence could not, of course, and though he kept saying he could and would, he did not because they are mostly indefensible. What he did do, somewhat effectively, was filibuster but since he speaks so smoothly and calmly, you may not have noticed that he was stringing sentences together that sounded good but did not answer the question posed by the moderator nor the challenges posed by Kaine. He also seemed to be flatly lying in denying his and Trump’s past statements. He also curiously said that Trump would release his taxes but not whether it would be before the election.
One thing that Kaine succeeded in doing was that by repeatedly bringing up Trump’s statements, he kept Pence on the defensive all night and only rarely was Pence able to attack Hillary Clinton, and when he did those attacks were ineffective. Since the main point of the vice-presidential candidates in these debates is to boost the top of their ticket and bring down the top of opponent’s ticket, Kaine could be considered to have had the better of the evening because he achieved that goal and Pence did not, though Pence was definitely better on style. Trump’s supporters may be disappointed with Pence that for the second debate in a row, Clinton escaped largely unscathed, with few of the issues that Trump supporters think are deeply damaging to her being brought up. The virulently anti-Clinton voters, and there are many out there, who want to see her savaged would have been disappointed with Pence’s performance though the media commentators may applaud him for his calmness.
The moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News was a disappointment. She seemed more intent on getting through all the questions that she had prepared, carefully reading them, than on asking probing follow-up questions, so the debate tended to lurch abruptly from one topic to another. Her first question to each, asking why so many people distrusted or disliked their running mates is useless because you are asking them to read the minds of other people. The only reasonable response to that is “You should ask them”. One of her last questions is the ridiculous extreme hypothetical, this one being what they would do if North Korea launched a nuclear attack on the US. And her last question involved their religious faith and I groaned when I heard it.
So all in all, an interesting but not particularly enlightening evening.