Debate reaction: Pence wins, but Trump loses

By James Hohmann analysis

Republican vice-presidential nominee Governor Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Tim Kaine. Photo / AP
Republican vice-presidential nominee Governor Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Tim Kaine. Photo / AP

Conventional wisdom gelled today that Mike Pence prevailed in the one and only vice-presidential debate.

The Indiana Governor's background as a talk radio host helped. Bigly, one might say. He was a smooth and amiable happy warrior.

Senator Tim Kaine, embracing the attack dog role that a running-mate traditionally plays, came across poorly as he repeatedly interrupted and trained his fire on Donald Trump.

In political consultant Frank Luntz's focus group during last week's presidential debate, 16 participants said Hillary Clinton won and six said Trump did. In a separate focus group Luntz conducted in Ohio yesterday for CBS News, 22 said the Indiana Governor prevailed and four said the Virginia Senator did.

In CNN/ORC's instant poll, 48 per cent of voters who watched the showdown at Longwood University in Farmville said the Republican did a better job while 42 per cent said the Democrat did.

"About two-thirds of debate-watchers said Pence's performance was better than they expected, just 14 per cent said he did worse than they thought he would. Reviews of Kaine tilted toward the negative, with 43 per cent saying he did worse than they expected," per polling director Jennifer Agiesta.

It may not matter: "Overall it was an unsatisfying, disjointed debate," the Washington Post's Dan Balz says. "It probably changed few minds and no doubt brought some encouragement to the bases of the two parties. In that way, it was a typical vice-presidential debate."

Validating this notion, a trio of Wall Street Journal reporters surveyed undecided voters in Northern Virginia afterwards, and apparently the debate swayed none of them.

But here are six overarching themes emerging from the voluminous coverage:

1 There is near consensus that Kaine was off-putting.

He came across as chirpy, condescending and rude. He mostly avoided eye contact with Pence, which made him looked shifty. He nervously gulped a few times. He tried to pack too much into every answer, talking fast so he could make his points before he was interrupted by the moderator or Pence. He bungled some zingers that could have been memorable.

John Wagner, who has been covering Kaine since he got tapped as Clinton's number two in July, thinks he was simply trying too hard: "Kaine turned in a performance that threatened to undermine the image of authenticity that has been one of his greatest strengths. The senator came across as over-rehearsed . . . At one point . . . Kaine accused Trump of being someone who 'loves dictators' and then unloaded one of many canned lines of the evening, accusing Trump of having 'a kind of personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.' Pence, who maintained the calmer demeanour through much of the debate, was able to easily parry, asking Kaine: 'Did you work on that one a long time?'"

While Clinton was happy to give Trump rope to let him hang himself last week, Kaine felt compelled to jump in constantly. When Pence noted he was in Washington on 9/11, for example, he interjected to say that he was in Virginia, which he noted is where the Pentagon is.

2 Like the election more broadly, Trump managed to suck up all the oxygen.

The debate became largely about him - which ultimately is good news for the Clinton campaign. While Pence is receiving high marks, the biggest storyline coming out of the debate is likely to be that he spent 90 minutes in A STATE OF DENIAL.

He acted incredulous when Kaine correctly pointed out that Trump has called Mexicans "rapists," Nato "obsolete" and said women who get abortions should be punished somehow. Pence pointedly declined to defend Trump's offensive statements about women or his racial attacks on a US-born federal judge of Mexican descent, opting to change the subject.

The Washington Post's Robert Costa says Pence was the opposite of Trump in both style and substance: "It was a dutiful, deflective and prepared performance for a campaign that rarely fits that description. Beneath the smooth patter, however, there were significant cracks with Trump . . . that showcased how far Pence's instincts stray from Trump's."

The Post's Amber Phillips writes that "Pence spent most of the debate defending a Trump that doesn't exist".

National Review Executive Editor Rich Lowry argues that he won but with this caveat: "Pence evidently decided to pretend that he is on a ticket with an utterly conventional Republican . . . [and his] sidestepping of Trump is the big asterisk on his night."

Pence's prep team clearly recognised that actually defending Trump across the board would lead to an unwinnable quagmire. So he repeatedly fibbed and pretended that Trump has never said things that he's said on video tape. And in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, Pence repeatedly attacked Kaine and Clinton for running "an insult-driven campaign". But he did it with a smile.

Pence's talking points underscored just how far outside the GOP mainstream Trump remains.

Pence said the United States should be willing to attack the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and he called Russian President Vladimir Putin "a small and bullying leader".

All these inconsistencies could add to be a really big deal - IF cable focuses on them.

Since relatively few people watched the debate compared to last week's, after the fact coverage could have an outsized impact. Some of the initial coverage, however, suggests that the focus might be more on style than substance.

As David Gergen put it on CNN, "Pence will not fare well with fact checkers, but his poise and polish played well with voters," For better or worse, style counts a lot in these debates."

"From the very beginning, Pence was the more comfortable of the two men on the debate stage. The Indiana Governor was calm, cool and collected throughout," Chris Cillizza writes, explaining why he declared him the winner.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni might capture the zeitgeist best:

"It wasn't exactly a vivid performance, but it was an eerily consistent one, and it answered the question of how a man who supposedly prides himself on his virtue defends a running -mate who is often bereft of it. He sets his jaw. He slows his pulse. He practices a bemused chuckle, perfects deafness to anything he prefers not to hear and purges from his memory anything he doesn't want to own. That included the whole grotesque cornucopia of Trump's slurs and bad behaviour, which [Kaine] had studied up on exhaustively, knew by heart and kept throwing at Pence, pressing for the barest glimmer of shame or the slightest hint of apology. It was pointless - a point that Kaine himself made about an hour into this exercise in futility. Substantively, it was galling. Strategically, it may well have worked."

3 But, but, but: Pence overshadowed Trump in many ways, and this may cause friction within the campaign.

The Post's Dana Milbank reports that Pence's performance gave Republicans a fresh case of "buyer's remorse":

"In the few months since he accepted Trump's tap, Pence has become the Servpro of the 2016 election, constantly cleaning up after Trump when the presidential nominee, say, attacks a Gold Star family. A running-mate's usual task in a debate, and in a presidential campaign generally, is to assure the public that he or she could take over if the unthinkable occurs. In Pence's case, there's no question about his fitness to serve. The question is whether Trump is prepared to serve. That Pence could be a heartbeat from the presidency makes pulse rates calm. That Trump could be president causes tachycardia."

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait adds: "Pence provided an evening of escapist fantasy for conservative intellectuals who like to close their eyes and imagine their party has nominated a qualified, normal person for president. It is hard to see how he helped the cause of electing the actual nominee."

"Pence made Trump look worse by comparison to his VP selection," conservative Post blogger Jennifer Rubin argues. Trump is more ignorant, erratic, boorish and unethical than Pence - by a mile. Pence very likely could have beaten Clinton - if Trump were not on the ticket."

Vox's Matthew Yglesias says Pence won precisely because he threw Trump under the bus:

"If Kaine and Pence had been debating for an Ohio Senate seat, any fair-minded person would have to conclude that Pence won in a landslide. The problem, obviously, is that they aren't . . . They're running for vice-president. Or at least Tim Kaine is. That's why he loyally defended Clinton when Pence hit the Clinton Foundation issue instead of pivoting away to his own talking points. He played the somewhat awkward role of loyal number two. Pence, by contrast, focused on making Pence look good and happily left Trump's eccentricities on the cutting board."

This sort of analysis has reportedly upset Trump.

"Being upstaged and ignored is not something to which Trump typically responds well," Business Insider's Josh Barro notes.

4 Pence certainly helped reassure some jittery Republicans looking for justifications to support Trump.

In so doing, Pence also boosted his own 2020 ambitions.

"Many Republican-leaning voters just want to be reassured there's a stable person near Trump," writes the Atlantic's Molly Ball.

New York Magazine's Andrew Sullivan says Pence did what he needed to do after Donald's loss in the first debate: "What Trump needs desperately is someone to assure the nervous middle that there will be a grown-up in the Oval Office next to the tantrum-throwing toddler. It was very effective, I'd say, on that count."

But there's a limit to what he can do. "Pence won't be able to sand away Trump's rougher edges over the final two presidential debates, and the final five weeks of the campaign," said ABC News political director Rick Klein. "But he may have steadied his ticket's slide - even, at the end, knitting together some optimism for Trump."

"There's one clear winner in this debate: Pence's presidential hopes," writes the New Republic's Laura Reston. "Over the last few months, Pence has done a masterful job of remaining loyal to Trump in public, all while distancing himself from the nominee on issues that have traditionally been important to the Republican electorate . . . [and] tonight was no different.

"From almost the first moment, Pence touted his own humble roots and his record in Indiana and in Congress. When forced to defend Trump on his tax returns, for example, he did, but for the most part, he pivoted quickly back to his own achievements."

If he launches a presidential bid in 2020, she argues, he'll now have a big leg up on rest of the field - in the unique position to unite disillusioned Trump supporters as well as his typical base of religious evangelical voters.

6 The moderator might have been the biggest loser of the night.

Elaine Quijano cut off what could have been a fruitful exchanges about a host of issues and did not go off script to ask obvious follow-up questions.

She also failed to maintain control, which made it painful to watch. "According to the transcript, the debate devolved into indecipherable 'crosstalk' 32 times," McKay Coppins tabulates on BuzzFeed.

Politico's Glenn Thrush called the debate "less a game-changer than a channel-changer":

"[Yesterday] marked the first time a digital division reporter moderated a major debate, and Quijano . . . showed her inexperience. She allowed both candidates to repeatedly interrupt each other, at times seeming to whisper her questions and demands for decorum."

- Washington Post

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