Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine scored a huge victory for his team in his debate with his GOP counterpart Mike Pence Tuesday night. To understand this one needs to step away from the atmospherics of the debate itself and look at it in the context of the overall race.
Kaine’s objective was to go after GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, and not after Pence, in the debate. His tactic was to drive a wedge between Trump and Pence by surprising Pence at the outset with a combative barrage of challenges to Trump’s record and behavior.
The approach put Pence back on his heels and onto the defensive. From that position, he was forced to do two things: wildly praise Trump on the one hand, thereby binding him into a no-win fate as a loser, and lie about Trump on the other hand, which was done profusely throughout the debate.
To the first point, Kaine kept hammering away at how Pence, a fairly cookie cutter GOP right winger, could put himself in a position to endorse Trump’s rude, racist and sexist comments and his failure to disclose his taxes.
To the second point, he kept interceding against Pence’s defensive efforts at deflecting the barrage by lying about things that both he and Trump have said.
The usual pundits commenting on the debate generally missed this dynamic badly, and how it fit into the larger campaign framework, and some in the polling pools did as well, to the extent they viewed it as a microcosm in itself.
Did Kaine loose some “style points?” To some, perhaps, because he turned what everyone thought was going to be a snoozer of a debate into a bright-eyed punching match. Nobody commented about Kaine’s famous raised left eyebrow, but it was in fine form during this session.
So much for Kaine as the mellow “Mr. Nice Guy,” some complained. Some had told pollsters he lost a little in terms of the public’s perception of him as warm and fuzzy. But he accomplished exactly what his team, the Clinton-Kaine team, sought to.
Pence was bobbing and weaving, denying he would betray his loyalty to Trump and lying about Trump’s racist, sexist and extreme comments about aliens, Putin and nuclear arms.
Trump came through the debate a horrible mish-mash of emotions, happy on the one hand that Pence did not “fall for the bait” of distancing himself from the top of the ticket, and yet jealous and pouty on the other hand at the idea of Pence stealing his spotlight even for a little bit, and the fact that many Republicans were loudly wishing that Pence was the presidential nominee, instead.
So now we come into the second Trump-Clinton debate this Sunday, which may prove so anticipated and compelling that a few people may even prefer it to the weekend’s endless stream of football games.
Trump is good for TV ratings but what appeals to the more infantile side of the human psyche as trashy TV entertainment does not translate into votes in a presidential election, especially when through these debates the public gets some idea of the wide range of issues and challenges a president faces in a dangerous world.
It may be fun to giggle, wriggle, pick noses, taunt sissies, fart, smoke and use dirty words on a playground, but it is another thing when suddenly there’s an urgent need for more parental influences to keep things safe and secure. So, playing with Trump may be OK as long as is taking place in a bubble of unreality, but the minute serious issues arise that could involve nuclear weapons, for example, then we can hope that a clear majority of the adults in our land will go looking for something more mature and experienced.
Because Kaine’s target in the debate was Trump, he made a calculated decision not to go after the easy targets of Pence’s own prejudices and biases, including his egregious biases against women and LGBT persons as governor of Indiana.
Instead, he sought to drive traditional Republican-leaning voters away from Trump by forcing Pence into untenable positions of half-hearted defenses of Trump. It worked beautifully.