Reflections on the vice-presidential debate


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.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    … 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.

    Neither candidate did a good job of restricting themself to the question asked. This is what political debates have evolved into. Once it’s your turn to speak, you “pivot” as quickly as possible to what you want to talk about. As an example, I’m not sure that Kaine ever got around to addressing North Korea.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    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

    Maybe Kaine doesn’t agree with you about which candidate had a “bad first debate”.

    I’ve seen a few accounts of the first debate from people who watched Trump vs. Clinton with the sound turned off. What’s interesting is that those people consistently scored Trump the winner, based solely on body language. Now think about how many people really understand (or care) what is coming out of the candidates’ mouths, and how many are going to vote on gut instinct… and worry.

    I suspect that many people found [Kaine] annoying

    Well, at least his running mate is warm and likeable and…. oh, wait.

    Kaine’s goal during the debate was to repeat as often as possible all the appalling things that Donald Trump has said

    This is the baffling bit, for me. Have the Democrats been paying any attention at all since July of last year? Or were they too focussed on doing down Bernie Sanders? Repeating Trump’s headline-grabbing nonsense is what he wants, it’s what he thrives on, and the only difference it makes to his poll numbers is to drive them UP. Is Trump paying Kaine, or something?

    Pence was definitely better on style

    That is bad news, because as you said in the first paragraph – style is what it’s about, is all it’s about.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Unfortunately, the question of “who won the debate” is all about public perceptions. If you were to examine the issues raised on a factual basis, Kaine is a clear winner because many of the positions supported by Pence are simply not factual.
    “War on Coal” – this is one that Kaine never got around to countering. The coal industry is having tough times lately. They blame this on Democratic regulations, but it is largely due to competition from natural gas.
    Awful things Trump has said – we all know that yes, Trump actually said all of those things. Video exists. The Internet exists. To pretend not to know about those things is disingenuous. Pence’s responses at times were extremely juvenile; pretending that Kaine was saying awful things rather than accurately repeating statements made by Trump for example. That’s playground-level stuff. At another point he claimed that Trump had said that “most” Mexicans were good people. This is not true.
    Here is a video with transcription: Washington Post July 2015

    “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

    Bold added by me for emphasis. “Most” is not the same as “some.”
    Some of the debate reviews are giving Pence points for being calm and unflappable, but I take points off for being so ridiculously nonfactual.

    Kaine did say a few things that were inaccurate. For example, he gave credit for the Iranian nuclear deal to Clinton. She may have been involved in the early stages of negotiations, but most of the work was completed while Kerry was SoS.
    Pence criticized Clinton for not renegotiating the ‘Status of Forces’ agreement signed by George W. Bush. You just can’t pull this crap without remarking that W was the most recent president from Pence’s party, and should get the blame if there was a screw-up.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Or were they too focussed on doing down Bernie Sanders? Repeating Trump’s headline-grabbing nonsense is what he wants, it’s what he thrives on, and the only difference it makes to his poll numbers is to drive them UP.

    I don’t believe that. Trump appeals to the racist, sexist xenophobics. There might be enough of those to win him the Republican nomination, but it is not at all clear that there are enough of those to win him the general election.

  5. Mano Singham says

    sonofrojblake @#2,

    Why would Kaine not think that Trump lost the first debate? Most of the post-media coverage panned his performance and the Clinton camp was clearly feeling jubilant. Clinton has even increased her lead in the polls since the debate.

    Though there may not be a causal connection between debate performance and polls, there are no indications that she did badly. Anecdotes about body language are hardly persuasive in the face of counter-evidence.

  6. DonDueed says

    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.

    Headline in today’s Boston Globe: “Mike Pence won the debate by not being annoying”

  7. Mobius says

    I only watched the first 30 minutes of the debate. I was less than happy with Kaine’s performance. His interruptions of Pence, though perhaps not as bad as Trumps interruptions of Clinton, were still bad form. I admit that Kaine was interrupting to counter untrue things Pence was saying, but still showed bad debate form. It was quite rude to the moderator. It lead to a both candidates speaking at once and made the debate hard to follow.

  8. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham, #7: Clinton has even increased her lead in the polls since the debate.

    And that is the important point. The purpose of a debate is to make your poll numbers go up and your opponent’s poll numbers go down. Clinton clearly won the debate by the standard that matters to the candidates.

    ‘Course, the question now is how temporary this “bounce” is, and whether Clinton’s lead will last until election day.

  9. anat says

    Considering the video released by the Clinton campaign of Pence not defending Trump, it seems Kaine wasn’t playing attack dog, but knight/bishop sacrificing himself for the queen. Since the VP debate hardly has any poll effect on its own, the Clinton campaign cunningly used it to produce Pence clips and Pence memes. Well played.

  10. Mano Singham says

    anat,

    Could you please provide a link to the video to save me from searching through so many out there?

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