The 2 Things You Need to Know About the Vice Presidential Debate

October 5th 2016

Mike Vainisi

The Vice Presidential Debate was not exactly thrilling entertainment, and it didn't tell us much about what these respective administrations would really do if elected. That said, there were two important takeaways from the debate between Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia (D) and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), the two men vying to replace Joe Biden as vice president.

Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence

1. Pence really struggled to defend Trump.

Pence unsurprisingly did not have much to say when Kaine started to cite the laundry list of Donald Trump's controversies during this long campaign. Throughout the debate, Kaine managed to dump out the full file of Trump opposition research — he brought up Trump's birther campaign, Trump's taxes, Trump's insults to women, Trump's business practices, Trump's foundation issues, Trump's racist remarks towards a federal judge of Mexican descent, Trump's comments about mass deportation, and Trump's praise of Vladimir Putin.

And Pence did not have much to say in reply. In fact, he usually avoided defending Trump altogether:

Other times, he denied that Trump had really said something Kaine quoted  — like when he denied that Trump had argued that the U.S. should deport all unauthorized immigrants. (Trump did say that.)

And when he did try to defend Trump, it didn't really work. At one point, Kaine brought up Trump's statement that women should face criminal punishment for abortion, and Pence's best defense was that Trump was not a "polished politician." (ThinkProgress points out that Trump later tried to walk these comments back, saying that doctors should be punished for illegal abortions, not women.)

If there's anything good you can say about Pence's defense of Trump, it's that the average viewer who hasn't been following the daily grind of this campaign might think that Kaine was exaggerating Trump's behavior. (He wasn't.)

There was one area where Pence's distance from Trump really stood out: Russia. On this issue, Pence delivered the standard conservative line of attack on Kaine — that President Obama's Democratic administration has been weak towards Russia, and, as a result, Putin has gained strength and prestige in the world. The problem with that argument, however, is that Pence's running mate, Donald Trump, has gone out of his way to praise Putin as a strong leader. It was pretty strange to see Pence bulldoze through the fact that Trump has made the case for almost a year that we should be working more with Russia.


ProPublica's Alec MacGillis argued that we should expect more of this Trump avoidance from Republicans should Clinton defeat him in November:

2. Kaine's interruptions probably won't sit well with most viewers, but it might not matter.

Kaine was surprisingly feisty, especially because his reputation was not really that of an attack dog. But Kaine has vigorously attacked Trump on the campaign trail, and he continued that last night in front of a national audience.


If there was anything that the Twitter audience did not like from Kaine, it was his interruptions. While Pence went out of his way to show a calm demeanor (in contrast to his running mate Trump), Kaine was energetically on the offensive against Pence. Some of these interruptions were unnecessary — like, for instance, when he interrupted Pence's 9/11 story to needlessly point out that he, too, was near the Pentagon on 9/11.

Pence, on the other hand, presented a sober, conventional face to the Trump campaign, something that most of America had not seen yet. He did this by mostly avoiding the subject of Donald Trump altogether, navigating away from the many traps that Kaine tried to set. The result is that CNN's instant poll after the debate declared Pence the winner:

But the consensus among political pundits is that while Pence came off better than Kaine in these moments, Kaine's lack of grace won't really hurt him. Why? Because the story tomorrow will not be about Kaine's interruptions, but instead will be about Pence's inability to defend his running mate Trump:

And this makes sense. At best, Pence slightly improved voters' impressions of what a Trump administration might be. At worst, he put himself (and the campaign) in a vulnerable position having misled Americans about Trump's behavior during this campaign.

You can watch the full debate here: