I feel very sorry for Mike Pence. Last night he was tasked with defending the indefensible Donald Trump. In his shoes, I would never have accepted the offer to be the vice presidential candidate on Trump’s ticket, because I could not find a way to keep my integrity intact and defend the man at the top.
Governor Pence, however, proved himself worthy of the office in the vice presidential debate with Senator Tim Kaine, not only because he outperformed his opponent, but because he was able to accomplish three specific things.
First, he proved he was the only person of the four on the major party presidential tickets with the temperament for the presidency itself. We already know Trump’s shortcomings due to his equivocations, outbursts and dishonesty. We already have the corrupt, incompetent and dishonest record of Secretary Clinton. And last night, Tim Kaine proved himself a petulant lap dog with no backbone.
By contrast, Pence was calm, eloquent, reassuring and prepared. The debate began with a question to both candidates about their qualifications should they be required to assume the office of the presidency. Both candidates failed to say anything of substance in their responses, but Pence proved his worthiness over the course of the whole debate by staying professional and in control in the face of numerous nagging interruptions from Kaine. He successfully reflected the annoyance of the audience at Kaine’s demeanor.
Kaine’s response to the first question only went back to praising Hillary Clinton, but his reference to her passion for public service will only remind most of her ambition. It was about there, two questions in, that he began to lose control of the debate.
He had many opportunities to knock Trump on foreign policy on things he said, but he often overplayed his hand and seemed too amped to trust Trump’s actual words. Pence, on the other hand, was able to calmly and rationally respond to the question of the threat of terrorism by tying ISIS to Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, while still magnanimously crediting her with a part in the killing of bin Laden.
He was magnanimous as well in his answer to questions of issues related to his personal faith, giving Kaine the benefit of the doubt on his personal pro-life views. Referencing offering more options to pregnant women and “creating a culture of life,” he sounded moderate, while never giving an inch on his pro-life views.
Kaine’s response to the same question was about capital punishment, where he admirably stuck to his personal views, while defending upholding the law. Good moments like this were wiped out, however, by moments when he condescendingly interrupted to try to steer the conversation to his talking points about Vladimir Putin and Trump’s taxes.
“This is important, Elaine,” he scolded the moderator, who seemed relieved to ask Pence a question and return the debate to adulthood.
Pence’s adult-like responses served his second accomplishment, which was to make a Trump-Pence ticket seem reasonable and not scary. Whereas Kaine’s strategy was to remind everyone of the nasty things Trump has said, Pence spoke to the undecided people, who cannot be unaware of Trump’s words, but are still unconvinced by Hillary Clinton.
When Kaine recommended community policing to help deal with the violence in our country, Pence agreed with the idea, presenting a bipartisan opportunity. He went further to advocate criminal justice reform, something that people like Rand Paul having been emphasizing for some time.
Pence also made Trump’s immigration plan sound palatable by emphasizing the need for enforcement and border security first.
Finally, he managed to make Trump seem more trustworthy on the growing threat of cybersecurity, while sowing seeds of doubt about Clinton’s abilities in that same area by emphasizing her difficulties with her private email server.
Pence’s third — and possibly most important — accomplishment in the debate was to defend traditional conservatism. Though Pence could be said to have reframed Donald Trump’s positions as not extreme, but actually typical Republican policies — which they without question are not — Pence appeared to attempt, successfully, to transcend Trump’s candidacy.
If Pence appeared to want to avoid talking Trump specifics, it’s because he did, and not only because that would be difficult. Though ostensibly Pence was tasked with defending the top of the ticket, he instead emphasized the (few) times when Trump recommended actually conservative politics, supplementing them with his own record. In essence, he offered the country a solid example of an unequivocal conservative who can be trusted.
Pence’s performance was far from flawless. He dodged some questions about things Trump said — again, I feel his pain for being in such a position, but he did accept it — and he flatout denied Trump said other things he undeniably said, though he gave off the impression of finding that less problematic than taking the time to contextualize some of the less egregious or misrepresented of Trump’s quotes.
Kaine also bookended his whiney, me-too performance with a good beginning and end. But he never accomplished the task of making Hillary Clinton seem more trustworthy and Pence, believe it or not, did just that for Trump, or at least Trump-Pence. Kaine simply attacked Trump’s character, which, again, everyone is familiar with and, at this point, is unlikely to change many minds.
Debates almost never change my mind, but this one did. No, I’m not going to support Trump (although if the ticket were flipped to Pence-Trump, I could back it.) But I went into the debate with a positive, if not exceptional view of Pence and a decent opinion of Kaine. I have gained new respect for Pence following last night and I have lost much respect for Kaine, who spoiled a golden opportunity to simply hammer Trump’s experience and policy recommendations.
I would take a serious look at Pence for president in 2020, but more importantly, what he gave us last night was a blueprint of the way in which conservatism might transcend 2016. If the Republican Party is to retain reluctant Trump supporters, it will have to give off the impression of a seamless transition to the next leaders of the party while leaving him in the rearview mirror.
Pence takes us back to an unquestionably conservative platform, appealingly and tastefully offered.
If only he were our nominee against Hillary Clinton today…
But he isn’t.