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4 reasons why nobody won the VP debate
But does it even matter?
There’s widespread hatred for the first and only vice-presidential debate of the 2016 election.
Tuesday night’s debate between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) had both men bickering about the misdeeds of each other’s running mates. Typically a low-stakes game, the veep debate promised—at the very least—to give the nation a glimpse of what a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency might look like. At best, we’d see some shots fired. It’s true that Pence and Kaine are deeply religious, polite white men in their fifties, but they fundamentally disagree on how this nation should be run. At worst, it would be boring.
Instead, the 90-minute event, moderated by CBS News’ Elaine Quijano, was filled with constant interruptions, missed opportunities, and no real victories for either campaign.
1) Pence couldn’t defend Trump’s positions, so he made up some new ones
The wide consensus is that Pence won the vice presidential debate, but it came at the expense of dancing around or dismissing most of Kaine’s attacks on Trump. The Indiana governor also created some potential problems for Trump down the line by contradicting Trump’s foreign policy, including those regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia‘s foreign policy, and sending troops to Syria.
Trump adviser on debate after Pence passed up opportunities to defend him: “Pence won overall, but lost with Trump”
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) October 5, 2016
Pence won the debate. What was amazing is he won by pretending the other guy on the ticket doesn’t really exist.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) October 5, 2016
Pence’s first mistake was in making it clear that he didn’t view Russia as an ally. The Indiana governor spoke of Russia’s aggression and criticized their “heavy-handed approach” to foreign policy.
“I mean, the situation we’re watching hour by hour in Syria today is the result of the failed foreign policy and the weak foreign policy that Hillary Clinton helped lead in this administration and create,” Pence said. “The newly emboldened—the aggression of Russia, whether it was in Ukraine or now their heavy-handed approach.”
“You guys love Russia,” Kaine interrupted, alluding to Trump and Pence’s repeated praise of Putin, but to no avail. Quijano ended up steering the discussion in another direction.
When the two veep candidates got back to Russia, Pence largely went off rails by promising a much more aggressive, strongman approach to Russia and conflicts in Syria than Trump ever promised.
“… I just have to tell you that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength,” Pence said. “And if Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say, to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo.”
Ultimately, Pence came off as the more serious debater—but he also misled Americans about the truth of his running mate’s record on a range of issues, from taxes to nuclear weapons to abortion.
2) The lack of substance
Kaine came off as frustrated and flustered as he pressed the Indiana governor on the business failures and secretive nature of his unconventional running mate. Pence only had to calmly counter by rehashing the same points about Clinton’s failures at the State Department, her private email server, and linking her to the status quo of the Obama administration. Opportunities to flesh out policy differences in how Clinton and Trump approached taxes, trade, foreign policy, or crime were largely neglected. Instead, the same Clinton and Trump scandals were brought up again and again by both men.
What does the future of the country look like in 2017 under a Trump administration? A Clinton administration? The VP debate did little to answer this question.
3) Kaine’s misfires and interruptions
Kaine’s constant stream of interruptions proved to be counter-productive. He made the debate at times incomprehensible, with Kaine speaking in many incomplete sentences or leaving out important context.
Pence proved to be a smoother debater than Kaine and rarely budged. The Indiana governor calmly rebutted the Virginian’s attacks on Trump with flat-out denials. As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, Kaine interrupted Pence almost twice as much as Pence interrupted Kaine.
4) “Senator, you’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again.”
The most widely-criticized line of the night had to be Pence’s dismissive response when Kaine brought up Trump’s habit of referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals.
“Senator, you’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again,” started Pence—but that wasn’t the end of it.
Kaine interrupted. “Can you defend it?” the Virginia senator asked.
Pence’s response completely missed the point, but was calm, cool, and played off the fears of Trump’s base.
“There are criminal aliens in this country, Tim, who have come into this country illegally who are perpetrating violence and taking American lives,” said Pence.
Instead of offering a rebuttal, Kaine lamely responded with a hypothetical question that allowed Pence to further cement his position.
“You want to—you want to use a big broad brush against Mexicans on that?” asked Kaine.
Kaine also understated Trump’s xenophobic, race-baiting rhetoric by referring to it as “painting Mexicans with a broad brush.”
Pence’s dismissive “Mexican thing” line quickly spawned a trending Twitter backlash that last through Wednesday morning. It was clear that Pence hit a nerve—and that Kaine missed an opportunity to hit the Trump campaign hard on its treatments of Hispanics.
Ultimately, the VP debate has historically had little consequence on the outcome of presidential elections. And like Election 2016 in general—which is just 33 days away—having it in the past is likely best for all of us.
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.