Notes on the Vice Presidential Debate

Prior to the vice presidential debate on Tuesday evening, I could not have picked Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) or Governor Mike Pence (R-Indiana) out of a lineup. Nor would I have recognized their voices. I had heard of both, but knew only generally where they land on the political spectrum and how they carry themselves.

2016 VP debate
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), left, and Gov. Mike Pence (R-Indiana).

This is in sharp contrast to the candidates at the top of their tickets. I’ve been watching Hillary Clinton for 26 years or so, and trying not to watch Donald Trump for about that long.

Speaking of the presidential nominees . . .

If Sen. Kaine had not had to defend Mrs. Clinton’s indefensible character and record, and if Gov. Pence had not had to defend Mr. Trump’s countless indefensible words and dubious acts, the debate might have been more substantive, in terms of policy. Even so, it was better than the first presidential debate. And since I’m polishing this post after the second presidential debate (notes on that are next), I’ll say, this vice presidential debate is still the debate I recommend that you watch — if you think you should see a debate but your tolerance for the despicable is nearly spent, and if you want some coherent talk about policy from both sides.

The debate’s moderator was Elaine Quijano of CBS News. She had some excellent moments and some other moments, of which more below.

My Biases

Though I am no longer a Republican, I am still a conservative. So is Mike Pence, unlike his running mate. So I am predisposed to like his views, at least comparatively. However, I am accustomed to admiring the skilled presentation of opposition views and criticizing the unskilled presentation of views resembling my own. (The latter is not a comment on Gov. Pence’s performance.) So you will see below some bouts of objectivity among the subjectivity. Both are what I think. Judge them as you wish.

I won’t attempt to give you a full picture of the debate here; you can watch it or read a transcript at your leisure. This debate will give you enough of the flavor of the scandal-obsessed presidential debates. It will also expose you to substantive discussion of actual issues from the big, complicated world beyond the presidential candidates themselves and their overweening narcissism. That way, you can form your own opinions, which may or may not track with mine.

That said, here are mine. And you’re welcome to add yours.

It’s Never about Being the Vice President

We knew from the beginning that this debate would not be about who will be the better vice president. First of all, it never is; the vice president doesn’t matter that much, except when he does. This campaign in particular is about the candidates themselves, with other issues taking not just a back seat but a later bus. As much as ever, the big question is, which vice presidential nominee will be a better president, if death or other circumstances leave the office vacant? This was the first question in the debate.

In response, Sen. Kaine talked mostly about other things, noting that he and his wife have a son in the Marine Corps, and they trust Hillary Clinton, but not Donald Trump, as commander-in-chief. He eventually touched on his experience in local, state, and national government. He has quite a lot — much more than his running mate.

For his part, Gov. Pence served six terms in the US House of Representatives and is now Governor of Indiana. He emphasized the latter, saying, “I’ve led a state that worked.” Later in the debate he returned to this theme: “I come from a state that works.”

To see just these first three minutes of the debate, you’d have thought that these were both pleasant, gracious people, committed to a serious gentlemanly discussion.

(Was that foreshadowing? This is: only one of them was so committed.)

Kaine Channels Trump?

After that, Sen. Kaine began interrupting and talking over Governor Pence during the latter’s time, generally when the Republican tried to talk about Mrs. Clinton’s record. The moderator was right when she said, “Gentleman, the people at home cannot understand either one of you, when you speak over each other.” What she didn’t say was that this seemed to be the point. Sen. Kaine was keeping the voters from hearing Gov. Pence’s criticisms of Mrs. Clinton, to the extent possible.

Depending on whose count you believe, he interrupted Gov. Pence over seventy times in 30-40 minutes of the latter’s time. And he often wasn’t just throwing in a word or two; he frequently talked over Gov. Pence at some length.

Was he trying to do what Mr. Trump did to Mrs. Clinton in the first debate? That would be odd, unless he thought it worked, which is contrary to the conventional wisdom that Mrs. Clinton won that debate handily.

Mr. Trump was rude and boorish in that first debate, but he seems quite skilled at interrupting. Perhaps it’s one of the dark arts? Sen. Kaine is decidedly unskilled at it. And he did it with a smile that was supposed to seem boyish, I suppose, but starting out looking smug and became a tad creepy when considered in bulk.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pence interrupted less frequently and talked over Mr. Kaine much less. He was the adult, the elder statesman (though slightly younger). He was the gentleman in the room — even if I disliked how much he spoke of his pride in being Mr. Trump’s running mate, etc., etc. He had to do some of that, I know.

Trust Issues

Why don’t people trust Mrs. Clinton? asked the moderator.

Sen. Kaine didn’t answer, exactly. His response, if you listened carefully, added up to sometime like this: We can trust her passion for the right causes. Conspicuously, he said nothing about trusting her word. I thought this encapsulated the nation’s experience of the Clintons and their ilk rather well.

He also said that Mrs. Clinton is always about putting others first. “That’s a sharp contrast with Donald Trump,” he said.

At least it would be, I thought.

Governor Pence’s response to the question included one of the best lines of the evening: “There’s a reason why people question the trustworthiness of Hillary Clinton, and that’s because they’re paying attention.”

Foreign Affairs (No, Not That Kind of Affairs)

In foreign affairs generally, where there was more substance than in the presidential debate by far, Sen. Kaine kept speaking of Mrs. Clinton’s brilliant accomplishments, as well as giving her partial credit for the recent Iran deal, which according to him is a great triumph for the West.

Gov. Pence noted that things began spinning out of control quite early in Mrs. Clinton’s work as Secretary of State, such as when the Russian invasion of Ukraine almost immediately followed President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s much-vaunted “Russian reset.” He spoke repeatedly of the administration having created a vacuum in Iraq, into which ISIS grew, and of major problems and mistakes involving Libya, Syria, and Iran.

Scandals and Corruption

Inevitably, pay-to-play and the Clinton and Trump foundations were mentioned, including improper activities by Trump’s foundation and massive donations to Clinton’s by foreign interests while she was Secretary of State. And there was some mention of 33,000 e-mails which were deleted from Mrs. Clinton’s private server after a subpoena for them was issued, as well as her unimaginably sloppy handling of classified materials.

The subject of Mr. Trump’s undisclosed federal tax returns just won’t go away. Now we also get the assumption, based on one illegally leaked return, that Mr. Trump paid no federal income tax at all after declaring a massive annual loss years ago. The latter obsession is just childish, especially considering that the New York Times and many of Mrs. Clinton’s major donors have done the same. No one is asserting that Mr. Trump broke the law, even if he didn’t pay income tax for a few years.

At one point the moderator asked if it seems fair that Mr. Trump paid as little tax as legally possible. Gov. Pence said, “He used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used.” Then he asked his opponent, “Senator, do you take all the deductions that you’re entitled to? I do.”

Sen. Kaine didn’t answer; he went off on something else. But I myself have wished to know if any of Mr. Trump’s critics on this point ever intentionally paid five dollars more in federal income tax than the law allowed. I’m willing to bet they didn’t. Hardly anyone would. I don’t. But the real wonder here is that they are obsessed with such childish trivia when there are so many other, much larger issues on which they might pound the daylights out of Mr. Trump.

Things got still more peurile at times with Sen. Kaine. In what was a fairly intelligent discussion of police activity and race relations (of which more below), he twisted Gov. Pence’s insistence that most cops are not racists into this gem: “I guess I can’t believe you’re defending the position that there’s no bias [in law enforcement].”

Of course, Gov. Pence never said that. To say that not every case is such a problem is not to say that there is no such problem anywhere at all. Either Sen. Kaine is so poisoned by partisan politics that he can’t tell the difference, or he thinks we won’t notice his duplicitous game.

In a similarly ridiculous twist, Sen. Kaine badly overplayed the birther controversy, insisting that questioning President Obama’s birthplace means going back to a time when a black man couldn’t be a US citizen.

He also went absurdly over the top in trying to clear his candidate of all suspicions.

Of the e-mails he said, “The FBI did a full investigation, and they concluded that no reasonable prosecutor would take any additional steps.”

Really? Did they put the full evidence in front of every reasonable prosecutor in the entire justice system and poll each one, and it was unanimous? No? Then how does this even make sense?

He said, “The State Department investigated Hillary Clinton and found she always acted in the interest of the United States.”

Am I supposed to impressed by the results of an investigation of Mrs Clinton by her own department – either while she runs it or later, during the same administration? And how is “always acted in the interest of the United States” a legitimate conclusion of a serious investigation? Something like this would sound more credible: “An internal investigation found no clear evidence that she had failed to act at any time in the interest of the United States.”

He’d sound more plausible if he didn’t overstate such things.

Sen. Kaine also tried to make too much hay with things he says Mr. Trump has said about immigrants and women. There was too much spin here, and Gov. Pence called him on it, saying, for example, that Mr. Trump wasn’t calling all illegal Hispanic immigrants murderers and rapists, just saying there are some of those criminals among the illegals.

Here’s the thing. Sen. Kaine doesn’t have to spin anything at all to make Mr. Trump’s ugly words sound bad. It would have been more effective of him not to spin at all. It might have been even more effective to understate the case somewhat. That way, instead of discrediting himself and his substance with obvious spin, he would have let Mr. Trump’s own words, unspun, discredit Mr. Trump.

These are the tactics of children. They are shallow, overblown, and manipulative. They only deceive us if we’re off our guard, or if we want to be deceived. I suspect they’re transparent to many voters.

All of that said, Sen. Kaine had some good lines, including this one, which also touches on foreign policy: “Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot.” By that point in the debate, I had had more than enough of him, but a good line is a good line.

Assorted Domestic Issues

There was some discussion of energy policy, including the Obama war on coal, which hits hard in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Utah, and numerous other states.

ObamaCare came up, of course. Sen. Kaine indulged the tired scare tactic of saying that repealing ObamaCare would leave us nothing. Accordingly, Gov. Pence was careful to say “repeal and replace.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), left, and Gov. Mike Pence (R-Indiana).
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), left, and Gov. Mike Pence (R-Indiana).

At one point, when Sen. Kaine was cherry-picking numbers to show how wonderfully the economy is doing, Gov. Pence said something I’d like to hear a lot more, in one way or another, in debates and even on Facebook: “Honestly, Senator, you can roll out the numbers, but people in Scranton know different.”

Economic Plans

I appreciated the moderator’s question whether either candidate was comfortable with his running-mate’s economic plan, since neither of them is likely to reduce the deficit.

Gov. Pence spoke about the widespread effects of robust economic growth – if we can get back to it – on the debt, the deficit, and other things.

Sen. Kaine did a nice job setting forth the Clinton economic plan – which I don’t buy, but he presented it well. He had five bullet points:

  • invest in manufacturing infrastructure and clean energy (the “jobs of tomorrow”);
  • invest in the workforce, from expanding pre-K programs to free college tuition for many (but not all, a la Bernie Sanders);
  • raise the minimum wage and enforce equal pay for women, for equal work (which is already the law, I believe);
  • promote small business growth;
  • tax relief for the middle class and small business, and have those at very top pay more.

I haven’t heard any mention of it since the debate, but Sen. Kaine dropped a bombshell here in passing: he indicated his willingness to increase the payroll tax cap in order to keep Social Security solvent.

Governor Pence promised to protect Social Security for those who have paid into it, and said – not for the first time or the last, that Mrs. Clinton will increase taxes and increase spending, while Mr. Trump will cut both taxes and spending.

Law Enforcement and Race

One of the best segments of the debate had to do with police offices and race. Here is the moderator’s question, including a superb statement by Dallas Police Chief David Brown:

After the Dallas police shooting, Police Chief David Brown said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. Every societal failure we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, not enough drug addiction funding, schools fail, let’s give it to the cops.”

Do we ask too much of police officers in this country? And how would you specifically address the chief’s concerns?

Sen. Kaine answered first, noting that he’s a gun owner, and that he’s opposed to “stop and frisk,” which Mr. Trump favors and which he says – contrary to some cities’ experience – doesn’t work.

Gov. Pence talked about his uncle, his hero, who was a cop in Chicago. He said, “Police officers are the best of us.” And, “Law enforcement in this country is a force for good.”

The Intermittently Immoderate Moderator

Ms. Quijano, the moderator, asked some fine questions, some of which I’ve noted. But she tipped her hand unprofessionally in some instances.

2016 VP debate
Gov. Mike Pence, left; moderator Elaine Quijano; and Sen. Tim Kaine

There were times when she joined Mr. Kaine in interrupting Gov. Pence during his allotted time, and it wasn’t about him being out of time. She was also more likely to cut off the Republican when he interrupted the Democrat (which happened much less frequently), than the reverse.

She and Sen. Kaine interrupted Gov. Pence on both occasions when Gov. Pence tried to mention massive cash ransoms the Obama regime paid to Iran for hostages.

Perhaps most obviously, in one case she asked a question, gave Sen. Kaine the first, full-length response, then tried to move on to the next question before giving Gov. Pence any time to respond. He asked if he could respond, and she granted him 30 seconds, not his full time. (He took more than 30 seconds.)

Curiously — given their behavior at other times — both Sen. Kaine and the moderator let Gov. Pence speak without interruption about Mrs. Clinton’s dismissal of most Americans as “a basket of deplorables” and “irredeemable.” I wondered why. The cynic in me wants to say that they think we low creatures don’t understand big words like deplorable and irredeemable. But my inner cynic is likely wrong.

Defeating ISIS/ISIL

Here’s an exchange about how to defeat ISIS. It is representative of the whole debate in that it includes some substantive discussion on both sides; it shows character issues intruding on that discussion; it shows Senator Kaine interrupting; and it shows him flying off into childish absurdity, when even an understated point would be plenty strong. It also contains one of Gov. Pence’s rare comebacks, the bit you’ll read about creative lines.

KAINE: Here’s her plan to defeat ISIL. First, we’ve got to keep taking out their leaders on the battlefield. She was part of the team that got bin Laden, and she’ll lead the team that will get Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS.

Second, we’ve got to disrupt financing networks, third, disrupt their ability to recruit on the Internet, in their safe havens. But, fourth, we also have to work with allies to share and surge intelligence. That’s the Hillary Clinton plan; she’s got the experience to do it.

Donald Trump. Donald Trump can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot. Donald Trump doesn’t have a plan. He said, “I have a secret plan,” and then he said, “Um, I know more than all the generals about ISIL.” And then he said, “I’m going to call the generals to help me figure out a plan.” And finally he said, “I’m going to fire all the generals.” He doesn’t have a plan.

But he does have dangerous ideas. Here’s four. He trash talks the military. The military is a disaster, John McCain’s no hero, the generals need all to be fired, and I know more than them. He wants to tear up alliances. NATO is obsolete, and we’ll only work together with Israel if they pay “big league.”

[Now he goes way over the top again, if he wasn’t already — and he doesn’t need to.]

Third, he loves dictators. He’s got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Moammar Gadhafi…

PENCE: Oh, please. Come on.

KAINE: … and Saddam Hussein. And last and most dangerously, Donald Trump believes — Donald Trump believes that the world will be safer if more nations have nuclear weapons. He’s said Saudi Arabia should get them, Japan should get them, Korea should get them. And when he was confronted with this, and told, wait a minute, terrorists could get those, proliferation could lead to nuclear war, here’s what Donald Trump said, and I quote: “Go ahead, folks, enjoy yourselves.”

I’d love to hear Governor Pence tell me what’s so enjoyable or comical about nuclear war.

QUIJANO: Governor Pence?

PENCE: Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.

KAINE: Well, I’m going to see if you can defend any of it.

PENCE: Well, look, I can defend — I can — I can make very clear to the American people, after traveling millions of miles as our secretary of state, after being the architect of the foreign policy of this administration, America is less safe today than it was the day that Barack Obama became president of the United States. It’s absolutely inarguable.

We’ve weakened America’s place in the world. It’s been a combination of factors, but mostly it’s been a lack of leadership. I mean, I will give you — and I was in Washington, D.C., on 9/11. I saw the clouds of smoke rise from the Pentagon.

KAINE: I was in Virginia where the Pentagon’s…

(CROSSTALK)   [Note that this is Sen. Kaine interrupting on Gov. Pence’s time. Again.]

PENCE: I know you were. We all lived through that day as a nation. It was heartbreaking. And I want to give this president credit for bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.

But the truth is, Osama bin Laden led Al Qaida. Our primary threat today is ISIS. And because Hillary Clinton failed to renegotiate a status of forces agreement that would have allowed some American combat troops to remain in Iraq and secure the hard fought gains the American soldier had won by 2009, ISIS was able to be literally conjured up out of the desert, and it’s overrun vast areas that the American soldier had won in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This Time, No Interruptions

At the end, the moderator asked about the role faith plays in their lives, and specifically about a time when each struggled to balance faith and public policy. It was a fine question and well phrased.

Sen. Kaine spoke of his own and the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty, which conflicted with the laws of Virginia, which allowed the death penalty. He didn’t commute every death sentence; he followed the law and honored the will of the people. It was a fine answer.

Gov. Pence didn’t discuss such a conflict at all, which disappointed me. He talked about life, adoption, and his opposition to abortion, especially partial-birth abortion.

Who Won?

There was widespread talk in the media, not just among conservatives, about Gov. Pence winning the debate, even though Sen. Kaine (they said) was the favorite and should have won.

Here are some of the words and phrases I collected from various writers — not known as conservatives — after the debate. (Sorry, I didn’t write down the sources, and there was a lot of duplication anyway.)

Gov Pence: poised, polished, well prepared, calm, collected, measured, didn’t get rattled, unruffled, studied, well-versed, at ease, knew his stuff, folksy, earnest, normal, won handily.

Sen. Kaine: less Rottweiler than fox terrier, smug, slippery, fast-talking, insincere, inauthentic, nervous, over-caffeinated, “weirdly out of touch with the ways normal people talk,” too much boosterism, too many canned lines, too rehearsed.

Will Rahn’s account at cbsnews.com is good reading on this subject. Here are two excerpts:

By seeming polite, knowledgeable and, most importantly in this ongoing freak show of an election, normal, Pence may have reassured some voters that a Trump White House would at least have one sane, functioning adult walking around.

And:

Both Pence and Kaine were chosen, in part, because they’d be comfortable being rarely seen and rarely heard, and neither would ever threaten to overshadow the top of the ticket. Their dullness is by design.

It’s probably best that the Clinton campaign continues to keep Kaine in a box. But if I were on Team Trump, I’d probably want to reassess that strategy when it comes to Pence, and get him out there more. He may be boring, but in a year like this, boringness can be an awfully attractive thing.

For my part, I’ve coached candidates — not presidential candidates — for debates. I can see me using Gov. Pence’s performance as a good but not perfect example, and Sen. Kaine’s as a bad but not disastrous example.

I give the win to Gov. Pence. But I won’t claim that it matters much.

What did you think?

Here are notes on the first presidential debate and the second presidential debate.

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