“Did you work on that a long time?” That Reaganesque rejoinder from Mike Pence — one of many — effectively put Tim Kaine in his place during a debate that exposed the depths of the Hillary campaign’s demagogic cheapness.
Pence looked like a statesman; Kaine, rudely interrupting him for much of the debate, looked like a clumsy hatchet man and shameless party hack.
Kaine’s labored lines and sweaty lunges contrasted embarrassingly with Pence’s smooth and substantive debate performance. Pence deftly ignored much of Kaine’s immature invective and directed the audience’s attention to Hillary’s failed record and the clear themes of the Trump campaign.
Kaine devoted most of his energy to rattling off his opposition research, much of it too insiderish and transparently canned to impress anyone. Pence, speaking much more slowly and authoritatively, looked directly at the camera (something Kaine never did) and reiterated basic points about Hillary’s tax-and-spend policies and feckless foreign policy. That proved more effective than any point-by-point rebuttal could have. Pence deftly answered the litany of accusations against Trump by noting that Kaine was indulging in the very “insult-driven campaign” he pretended to find so shocking in Trump.
Of course, insufferable pundits, who last week were whining about Trump “taking the bait,” criticized Pence for “not defending Trump” by refusing to take Kaine’s bait. It was a wise choice by Pence, who commanded the debate through his calm re-directing of it back to serious issues. Even the moderator, who never asked Kaine any pointed questions, found his off-topic trivialities and obsession with Trump’s tax returns tiresome enough to correct him at one point and say: “The question was about Aleppo, Senator.”
Kaine, stuffed with weeks of memorized cheap shots, began to short-circuit a bit under such corrections and Pence’s steady presence. While an irritated-looking Kaine was trying to catch his breath after one of his extended attacks on Trump, a cool Pence simply noted that Hillary had called much of the country a “basket of deplorables.” So low was Kaine that he claimed Trump cared more about his tax returns than the troops — a slur so over-the-top that all Pence had to do was shake his head sadly.
The press purrs over Kaine as a “man of faith” and a model of decency. In this debate, he came off as a lying lawyer and soulless pol, willing to sell off his scruples for the sake of a seat at Hillary’s table. He said that his Catholic faith would have no relevance to his public life, even as he touted it as proof of his character. Talk about faith without works. Typical of his opportunistic mischaracterizations, he said that the Church opposes the death penalty (it never officially has), said that he agrees with that position, and then said that he proceeded to execute a bunch of people as former governor of Virginia, because, after all, he is just an instrument in the hands of the people and he must enforce the laws they want. No sooner had he said that than he was extolling Roe v. Wade, which took the issue of abortion away from the people. Would he enforce their will on that issue? Not a chance.
Pence made him even more uncomfortable by pointing out gently that as Hillary’s flak his supposedly fervent faith now coexists with a stance in favor of partial-birth abortion and taxpayer-financed abortions. So much for Kaine’s touchy-feely Seamless Garment-style Catholicism. He is more worried about cops frisking criminals than abortionists engaging in near-infanticide.
Pence, who talked about adoption as an alternative to abortion and thoughtfully discussed the sanctity of life, made Kaine’s partisan gibbering look as ignoble as it is. During several exchanges, Pence turned what Kaine and Hillary consider strengths into weaknesses. After Kaine launched into a windy attack on Putin and a tendentious description of Trump’s admiration for him, Pence, instead of engaging his lies, simply drew attention to Hillary’s disastrously ineffective “reset” with Putin. Trump didn’t turn him into a powerful world leader; she and Obama did.
In debates, less is more, as Pence showed. Against a flailing, gabbing, demagogic opponent, it is better to step back and let the audience see that the person who talks the most often says the least. Come Sunday, Trump would do well to imitate his running mate.