The good news for Donald Trump from Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate: If viewers thought either candidate would listen to their VP, they’d have to give a clear edge to Mike Pence.
The bad news: LOL, no one actually thinks this.
Pence, the Indiana governor trying to reassure conservatives as Trump’s running mate, delivered a crisp, calm and collected performance Tuesday in the face of a childish onslaught of interruptions by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. The Virginian hardly let Pence get through a single answer without trying to speak over him — usually to deliver an obviously canned one-liner of the type that is becoming a hallmark of the Clinton/Kaine team in these debates — and very likely paid a price with voters, who surely thought he came off looking like a jerk.
Despite the interruptions, as well as a poor job by moderator Elaine Quijano (who unlike Lester Holt in last week’s debate spent too much time trying to rein in the candidates instead of letting them set the pace), this contest offered far more substance and a brighter line between the two sides’ governing philosophy than Trump and Clinton managed in their first showdown. From foreign policy to abortion, we got to hear two very different arguments for how the country should proceed.
But if Pence won on points, the reason he didn’t win in a KO is because Kaine was adept at peppering him with some of the outrageous things Trump has said while campaigning over the past year-plus. Pence on his own was great; Pence having to defend Trump was … well, no worse but no better than anyone at defending the often indefensible (for example: Trump’s derogatory comments about John McCain’s having been a prisoner of war).
And here we get to the limitations of what a running mate can do in such a forum. Pence was an able spokesman for conservatism and traditional GOP positions, but this year that doesn’t necessarily mean he represented the GOP nominee very well. Kaine, conversely, made no one wish he was the one at the top of the Democratic ticket. But in poorly representing himself, he helped Clinton’s cause by repeating as many negative things about Trump as humanly possible — that was the point of all those interruptions, after all.
To use a different sports analogy, Pence was like a running back who squeezes through as many small holes as possible before they close on him. But Kaine was like the guy who runs headlong down the field on a kickoff and flings his body at the return team’s “wedge” so someone else can make the play.
Given that it’s the top of the ticket that ultimately matters, does that benefit Trump or Clinton more? Again, if people are interested in the team the nominee has built, Trump should benefit. But if Pence did a little too well, especially in comparison with Trump last week, it’s possible that diminishes the nominee rather than building him up.
Most likely, this vice presidential debate will prove relatively inconsequential next to the presidential debates. For Trump to truly profit from Pence’s performance, he will need to study it as an example of how a skilled debater approaches these events. Will Trump’s ego allow for that? Perhaps we’ll find out Sunday evening.
More from the AJC: When Pence came to Cobb County …
… and Kaine came to Gwinnett.