Tim Kaine and Mike Pence had very clear strategies in the vice-presidential debate, and they followed them with robotic consistency. Kaine’s plan was to turn every question into a list of the horrendous things Donald Trump has said or done. Pence’s plan was to turn every question into an attack on Barack Obama. The problem with Pence’s strategy is that Obama is popular and is not on the ballot, while Trump is highly unpopular and is on the ballot.
Pence provided an evening of escapist fantasy for conservative intellectuals who like to close their eyes and imagine their party has nominated a qualified, normal person for president. It is hard to see how he helped the cause of electing the actual nominee.
At moments, the debate veered off into a generic dispute between a Republican and a Democrat. Kaine defended the jobs created under the Obama recovery, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Pence insisted the economy is the worst since the Great Depression, declared his intense and undying love of coal, and promised the restoration of strength. Pence flayed Kaine for his ticket’s assertion that some police harbor “implicit bias” against African-Americans, a point of frontal dispute. (The data overwhelmingly support Kaine’s position.) Pence defended the classic conservative position that accusations of bias are inherently dirty pool and the police should be regarded as unreservedly heroic.
But the pattern that quickly asserted itself in the debate revolved around Kaine’s attacks on Trump, which he was able to introduce into every subject that came up. Pence had a handful of responses to this approach. He would shake his head, or chuckle. Occasionally he would express indignation that Democrats were insulting their opponents. He would deny that Trump had said the thing Kaine quoted him as saying, and when invited, decline to elaborate on his denial. Then Kaine would say, “I can’t imagine how you could defend” whatever it was that Trump had said, usually prompting another Pence head shake or fake laugh. At one point, Kaine observed that Pence had not defended his running mate, and Pence offered to do so, and to go point-by-point through the accusations, but he never got around to it.
Pence did call for “broad-shouldered American leadership,” which could count as implicit praise of Trump, whose shoulder width Pence has lavished with repeated and almost erotic praise. It is a deflating commendation, similar to the Simpsons episode in which Homer asks his father to compliment him, and his father replies, “I was always proud you’re not a short man.”
It is, of course, notoriously difficult for anybody who is not Trump to defend Trump, since the only method of doing so is through Trump’s own unique behavior. When presented with evidence of his unfitness, Trump responds with a combination of unrelated personal insults of the moderator or his opponent, indignant denials, and word salad, or — if cornered — launches into a different, more newsworthy statement to distract the media. For Pence or anybody else to attempt this would mean getting sucked into the inescapable vortex of outrage into which Trump is the sole occupant. And so, instead, Pence acted as though Trump was a man he had barely heard of, but surely would never say the nasty things that were being attributed to him.