For that, Hillary Clinton should be supremely grateful.
Clinton’s running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, came on like a high school sophomore debater. He raced to answer, interrupt his opponent, and cram every memorized talking point against Donald Trump that he could into every answer. He seemed on the verge of hyperventilating and was unable to talk about the economy, Russia, Aleppo, abortion or immigration without packing in comments on Trump’s taxes.
The basic urge was smart: Trump himself is the Trump campaign’s biggest weakness, and his “super smart” efforts to not pay taxes have hurt him in the polls. It was Kaine’s job to make the debate about Trump, and turn the discussion to Trump as often as he could.
Or as often as he could without sounding like a yapping dog. He reduced almost every question to “Trump hasn’t released his tax returns” or “Trump said Mexicans are rapists.” Had he used those points judiciously, they could have had real bite. Instead, like that inexperienced, sophomore debater, he sounded like a one-string piano.
Trump’s running mate, Governor Mike Pence, was comfortable on the stage. His job was to turn the debate away from Trump and back to the issues or to deflect back to Clinton. He did it well. To the millions of viewers who didn’t know him, he managed to look and sound reasonable, adult, and presidential.
He also understood who his audience was. While Kaine looked to the side, presumably at debate moderator Elaine Quijano, Pence knew that the real audience was behind the TV cameras. He addressed his comments to the camera and to the TV audience.
Kaine’s constant interruptions achieved the Trumpish level of absurdity set in the first presidential debate. At one point, after Kaine barged into Pence’s allotted time and Pence objected, Pence interjected himself into Kaine’s time. Kaine’s response? “Evenses!”
On substantive issues, the debate was harder to call. Quijano’s performance made the doormat performance of Lester Holt in the first debate seem almost magisterial. Both candidates talked over her, though Kaine was more doggedly enthusiastic in that regard. One wonders whether at this writing, 30 minutes after the debate’s end, he’s still talking about Trump’s tax returns.
Kaine demonstrated no understanding at all of economic issues, and not much interest. He was too focused on Trump to say much substantive about anything else.
Pence’s performance was different. He spent little time attempting to defend Donald Trump. The impression he gave was of a man supporting the candidate while laying out his own, conservative vision. That was arresting because, whatever Trump is, he is not conservative.
The big winner in this debate was Mike Pence. Unless Clinton wins and then dies or is impeached, Tim Kaine will never be president. He came across as childish and weak, a Clinton mouthpiece and nothing more. Pence, on the other hand, looked like a man who is thinking ahead to 2020, and who knows that if Trump goes down in flames, he’ll both be in a position to call in markers and have to disassociate himself from the disaster.
Conservatives and Trump supporters alike will have no reason to be displeased with Pence’s performance tonight. It was a good one. The debate will have almost no impact on the election, though it will make some wavering and unhappy “never Clinton” voters feel better about a vote for Trump. We’ll almost certainly be hearing more from Mike Pence.