Andrew Sullivan on the Vice-Presidential Debate: ‘A Huge Win for Trump-Pence’

Kaine and Pence debate. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Welcome to a surreal spectacle this election season: two middle-aged white guys, apparently sane, debating what might actually be policy proposals. Or not. We’ll find out soon enough.

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10:34 p.m.

Pence makes his “change” case. It’s his strongest card and he’s ending with it.

It seems clear to me that this was a huge win for Trump-Pence. Some are arguing that Pence’s inability to defend Trump on countless issues will hurt him. He sure was simply denying some things that are categorically true. And maybe the Clinton camp will be able to construct some future attack ads that will reveal this.

But what Trump needs desperately is someone to assure the nervous middle that there will be a grown-up in the Oval Office next to the tantrum-throwing toddler. It was very effective, I’d say, on that count, especially with Republican voters who were looking for reassurance.

As for Kaine, I don’t think he appeared presidential; he failed to defend the past eight years clearly and aggressively enough; he did nothing to rouse the Obama coalition. He seemed like a classic politician. He was strong on abortion at the end, and on his faith. He seems like a hugely decent guy — but he missed a few moments to really expose Trump’s extremism the way he needed to.

I hope I’m wrong. And I’m jumpy about this because I believe this is indeed a national emergency and any failure to expose the radical danger that Trump poses to civil and global peace, and to liberal democracy itself, is an unforgivable lapse. Kaine improved toward the end. I suspect he won back many voters in the last half hour. But Pence was pretty lethal.

Maybe it won’t matter — it probably won’t. It was refreshing, I have to say, to hear an old-school Republican candidate on the stage. I almost miss them at this point. Do you think Republican voters will simply decide to wait for Pence in 2020? That’s the hope I have. I’m clinging to every hope I can.

10:25 p.m. That was a lovely answer from Kaine on the death penalty and the importance of the First Amendment. Pence is also eloquent on the traditional Christian view of abortion. Their mutual respect is perhaps the only grace note we have yet witnessed in this foul campaign. And Kaine’s defense of his public-policy position as opposed to his personal conviction is about as convincing as you can get. Pence is incapable of defending Trump on punishing women for abortion — or for countless other things that Trump has said and supported.

Kaine saved his best for the last: Why do Trump and Pence not trust women?

It took 80 minutes to get a real debate. Can we start over now?

10:23 p.m.

10:22 p.m. It has taken 80 minutes for Kaine to overcome his jitters and begin to sound like a potential president. How many people are watching this at this point is another question.

10:20 p.m. Kaine gave a decent answer on the two foundations. Pence is floundering because, really, what can he possibly say?

10:18 p.m. God this is depressing.

10:16 p.m. A reader writes:

Yes, Kaine is over-eager and interrupting and too canned and corny. He’s also got his facts right, has done a nice job of listing the litany of (the most) outrageous things Trump has said and has shown that Pence has no interest or ability to defend any of that.

This is not a disaster. Even if it is a setback, it is a pretty small one as these things go. Not nearly as many people are watching this as the Hillary/Donald affair and the vast majority of those who are are already decided on who they are supporting.


My read of this debate is that nobody will remember it in a few days.

Nate Silver seems to agree:

10:14 p.m. For the first time in this debate, Kaine has calmed down and is making progress.

10:12 p.m. Kaine is incapable of waiting his turn and then pounding home an anti-Trump point. And Pence is simply pretending he’s running with Ronald Reagan — when he is running with Reagan’s nemesis.

10:10 p.m.

10:06 p.m. How does Kaine not mention that Trump called on Putin to spy on his running mate? Did he do any prep – or just rehearse a few cringe-worthy canned slogans?

10:02 p.m. Pence’s position on Russia would make eminent sense if he were Romney’s running mate. But he’s running with a man who sees Putin as his role model and has never expressed the slightest interest in protecting civilians anywhere at any time. Pence wants to face down Putin; Trump wants to join him. And Kaine cannot press this point home.

10:01 p.m.

9:54 p.m. Kaine seems unable to point out how Trump is deeply dangerous to world stability and order. This is not hard. He would needlessly alienate the entire Muslim world; he would side with Putin against critical European allies; he has supported war crimes as American policy; he wants to start a trade war with China that could trigger a global depression; he has voiced support for nuclear proliferation and aired the idea of using nuclear weapons in a regional context. You would not know this from Kaine’s pathetic, defensive blather. Again: this is not just a poor performance; it’s political malpractice when we face an unhinged belligerent maniac as a potential president of the U.S.

At this point, one can’t just feel frustration at Kaine, but anger at his ineffectual incoherence.

9:52 p.m. This is the silver lining:

But the cloud is dark.

9:45 p.m. Here’s what I don’t understand: When ISIS is being cornered and defeated in Iraq, it goes unmentioned. What you need to do is show that Trump is outside any conceivable mainstream on foreign policy. Kaine is failing. He seems utterly canned, corny, and jumpy.

9:41 p.m. I simply cannot believe that Pence is beating Kaine on the immigration argument. This is political malpractice. And who told Kaine that repeating canned lines is an answer.

9:40 p.m. This is becoming a wipeout:

9:39 p.m.

9:36 p.m. A reader writes:

Pence is showing off his talk radio host chops, talking over rebuttals and sticking strictly to a core message, repeated over and over. If he had control of the caller volume, he would be turning Kaine down. His smoothness sounds impressive, but the style and substance expands Trump’s appeal not one bit beyond the diehards.

I don’t agree. Pence has won every single debating issue tonight. What Pence is doing is letting people know that there would be a calm, sane, agreeable man to tame Trump. He won’t be that person. No one can control Trump. But Pence’s manner is very, very effective.

9:32 p.m. Pence has consistently taken moments to demonstrate he agrees with his opponent, and compliments him. Kaine not so much. And Pence’s posture on police shootings — appearing to stay above the fray and opposed to politicizing incidents — is very effective. The moderator has a better response and a better affect than Kaine.

9:31 p.m. This too:

9:28 p.m. Kaine is jumping around all over the place. Pence has a calm that is showing Kaine to be a jumpy and canned politician. Kaine hasn’t managed to say anything directly relevant, or anything authoritative. I find myself waiting for Kaine to shut up and for Pence to speak with authority.

9:25 p.m. Kaine appears as if he is on uppers and can’t contain himself. He’s behaving in a far less presidential manner than Pence. And in the optics of this — especially trying to reassure nervous voters — Pence is miles ahead. And now Kaine is attacking Trump on social security – when that’s one issue on which Trump agrees with Clinton!

9:22 p.m. I’d say that so far Pence is trouncing Kaine on both style and substance.

9:20 p.m. Man, I wish Kaine and Clinton wouldn’t rely on these canned, corny lines.

9:18 p.m. Kaine doesn’t rebut Pence’s reprise of the 1980s, and gives us a canned spiel that I’m already tuning out. Pence is far more effective.

9:17 p.m.

9:15 p.m. Pence is winning the gravitas game. The moderator is being run over entirely.

9:13 p.m. Kaine needs to chill and stop interrupting.

9:10 p.m. Pence gave a warm intro. His nod to his opponent was graceful. His reference to prayer effective. He seems like an adult – which, God help us, we would need if the worst happens.

9:09 p.m. He has advisers around him but he’s still tweeting barbs at Megyn Kelly:

9:07 p.m. So Kaine gives a highly accomplished and polished non-answer to the first question. I wonder if it takes a man to tout the first woman president.

9:04 p.m. Aren’t you glad they’re both sitting down? Helps my nerves. As does not having an unstable maniacal bully on the stage.

9 p.m. Good advice:

8 p.m. What am I looking for tonight? How a sane, calm hard-right conservative will carry water for Donald Trump? And how will a likable, Catholic Democrat make the case for one of the least congenial presidential candidates in living memory?

Can they both add something that the two headliners haven’t?

And more importantly, can this guy restrain himself for an hour and a half:

Oh, boy.

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