Republican Mike Pence had a great debate last night. The general consensus is that Pence performed much better than Democrat Tim Kaine, who made it difficult for Pence to get a word in edgewise. Kaine came across as aggressive. Pence came across as calm, patient and presidential. There was only one serious flaw with Pence’s performance.
Tim Kaine played the role of attack dog on Pence’s running mate, Donald Trump. As expected, Kaine attacked Trump’s past insulting statements, his leaked tax returns, his affinity for Vladimir Putin, his deportation plan and his plans for the economy.
Pence responded to the attacks by channeling Ronald Reagan. He shook his head disappointedly and, at one point, even said, “There you go again,” a direct quote from Ronald Reagan’s debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980. What Mike Pence did not do was mount a serious defense of Donald Trump.
“I’m happy to defend him,” Pence said of Trump at one point. But he never really did. To be fair, this is partly because Time Kaine kept interrupting. Nevertheless, when given the opportunity to defend Trump, Pence often talked mostly about his own record instead.
For example, moderator Elaine Quijano correctly pointed out that both candidates planned to add more to the $19 trillion national debt and asked, “Are you concerned that adding more to the debt could be disastrous for the country?” Mike Pence responded by talking about his record as governor of Indiana, where he balanced the state budget.
The closest that Pence came to defending Trump’s proposed spending programs was to say, “And when you get the economy growing, Elaine, that’s when you can deal with the national debt. When we get back to 3.5 percent to 4 percent growth with Donald Trump’s plan we’ll do [sic], then we’re going to have the resources to meet our nation’s needs at home and abroad, and we’re going to have the ability to bring down the national debt.”
This is a disturbing statement coming from a fiscal conservative. Pence, as Donald Trump’s running mate, seems to be taking the liberal position that cutting federal spending is bad for the economy rather than the conservative position that less government spending is beneficial for the country. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the national debt is already at more than 100 percent of GDP, uncharted territory for economic growth.
Pence seemed to be facing two opponents. There was Tim Kaine, whose debate performance was reminiscent of Donald Trump’s performance against Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump himself. Pence was under an almost constant barrage of reminders of things that Trump had said or done over the past year.
For those following the debate on Twitter, Trump seemed to be undermining Pence’s halfhearted defense. As the men talked, Trump was posting tweets that insulted Tim Kaine and others. Fox News reported an observation by comedian Jon Lovitz that “Trump is insulting people at the same moment Mike Pence is dodging questions about Trump insulting people.”
In the end, the two participants in the debate seemed to have different goals. Kaine assumed the traditional vice-presidential role of attack dog. Mike Pence, while offering harsh criticisms of Hillary Clinton, seemed to be looking past 2016 to 2020.