By Emily Chicklis
This past Tuesday, two men, both of indistinct appearance and practically interchangeable monosyllabic names, took the debate stage to support their respective running mates in this year’s presidential election. After the clash between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the first presidential debate, the meeting of their running mates, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Governor Mike Pence, was not so highly anticipated.
However, the sparring match between the two vice presidential candidates turned out to be a lively one, and, thanks to moderator Elaine Quijano, even more substantive than its predecessor (though, in fairness to Lester Holt, Quijano didn’t have Trump’s braggadocio to deal with, if I may use that favored member of the Trump lexicon).
Kaine hopped into the ring already swinging after winning the coin toss, and had to be censured many times by Quijano for interrupting his opponent—surprising to see given his reputation as a kindly but reserved progressive (or, to use late-night host John Oliver’s phrase, “America’s Stepdad”). Early on he remarked, “I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first campaign of Donald Trump.” And in fact, Pence did not, choosing to focus his efforts on chipping away at Clinton’s reputation. Kaine, on the other hand, alternated between expounding on his candidate’s experience and running off every offensive quote Donald Trump has ever made (of which there are many).
Pence’s response was to spin the Clinton/Kaine ticket as being “the insult-driven one”, though more often than not when he accused Kaine of “putting words into [his] mouth”, Kaine was simply putting out words that Trump actually said. However, Kaine’s eager-to-hit demeanor only aided in Pence’s negative portrayal, and Pence is certainly not one to get punch-drunk.
The tables turned rather sharply from the previous debate in which Clinton was collected and Trump lost his cool. This time, Pence was clear-headed and clearly did much more policy homework than Trump; Kaine, though also well-read on the issues, struggled to remain silent as Pence spoke, and at times fell back on practiced slogans.
At one point, in reference to Trump and Pence’s praise for Vladimir Putin’s leadership ability, Kaine said, “If you don’t know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, then you should go back to a fifth grade civics class.” Later on he began the same phrase again, “If you don’t know the difference…,” at which point Pence cut in to ask if they were approaching “the grade school part again”. The moment bore some resemblance to former Republican candidate Marco Rubio’s meltdown when his “memorized 25-second speech” was mocked by fellow Republican (and now Trump supporter) Chris Christie, but unlike Rubio, Kaine made a quick recovery.
Despite his rather combative demeanor, Kaine’s slew of Trump quotes past did have an impact. The strongest compliment Pence offered his running mate over the 90 minute debate was simply stating that Trump “is a businessman, not a career politician.” But is that really a compliment when the U.S. is involved in many delicate foreign policy situations that require careful leadership?
Pence argues that Trump’s outsider status will bring a change in the status quo (i.e. “Make America Great Again”). Here we take a moment to appreciate the utter irony of Trump and Pence running on a platform of “change,” or an “American comeback,” that echoes President Barack Obama’s campaign eight years ago.
Both candidates emphasized their strong Christian backgrounds (interestingly, there was little discussion of religion between Clinton and Trump), but even this similarity was used to illustrate distinct political views. While Republican Pence uses faith to justify his views against abortion and marriage equality (the latter of which he has claimed will lead to “societal collapse”), Democrat Kaine argues that “it is not the role of the public servant to mandate [religious beliefs] for anybody else”, and announced that both he and Clinton “support Roe v. Wade.”
Were Pence running with any other candidate, he would have won this debate hands down. However, Kaine’s concerns, however clumsily presented, are not to be discounted.
In the end, the real star of the Tuesday night’s show was Elaine Quijano, who deserves all the credit in the world for being a calm and firm moderator throughout. The candidates were apparently insistent on completely derailing her line of questioning; as Pence and Kaine argued over whether Clinton’s or Trump’s foundation actually gives more to charity, for example, Quijano was forced to remind the two that the subject at hand was supposed to be North Korea.
Despite the candidates’ insistence on attacking each other rather than responding, Quijano held the stage and pushed through many key questions of policy.