For most of the media, the single most important question after a debate is, “Who won?” In the case of last night’s vice-presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, that gets a bit complicated because the answer depends of what you consider “winning.”
On the optics, it’s clear that Pence won. That is born out by things like CNN’s instant polling. Pence was calm and assured. He never got ruffled. On the other hand, Kaine came across as the aggressor. Much of the immediate commentary was about how many times he interrupted Pence. But I don’t think that was the problem – they both interrupted a lot. It was more about Kaine seeming to be a bit frenzied. That doesn’t communicate confidence – which is something viewers want to see in these debates.
I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by this. Kaine has always struck me as someone who doesn’t get rattled and he isn’t known for being an aggressor. Based on that, I suspect that he was given the job last night of being the traditional vice presidential attack dog – a role that he is not necessarily suited for and it showed. But it also probably signals that this is a role that Clinton wants to pass on to someone else so that she can stay above all that in subsequent debates. That wouldn’t be a bad call.
Beyond the optics though, another theme emerged last night. In attacking Trump, Kaine repeatedly brought up things the Republican nominee has said during this campaign and asked his opponent whether or not he can defend them. Pence’s response was a bit startling. He simply denied they’d ever been said. Journalists at Huffington Post, the Washington Post, TPM and Politico (there are probably others) documented the list of things Trump actually said that Pence claimed he didn’t. This raises at least one simple question: can a candidate who repeatedly lies be determined the winner?
But Pence’s performance last night raises some deeper questions. I actually thought that Rich Lowry captured it best (I know, surprise…surprise).
Kaine strategy–lose debate but quote Trump a lot; Pence strategy–win debate but don't defend Trump
— Rich Lowry (@RichLowry) October 5, 2016
Jennifer Epstein said something that I heard quite a bit.
Tim Kaine debated as the 2016 vice presidential candidate. Mike Pence debated as a 2020 presidential hopeful.
— Jennifer Epstein (@jeneps) October 5, 2016
Here is how Alec MacGillis put it:
Pence is giving the country a very good preview of how the Republican Party is going to move beyond Trump. Just pretend he never happened.
— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) October 5, 2016
None of that is good news for Donald Trump.
Update: Of course, the Clinton campaign is already all over what happened last night.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 5, 2016