If optics are the sole criteria for scoring the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence clearly “won.” A former broadcaster, he said even the dumbest things with a soothing baritone. He had the unflappable calm of an airline pilot guiding a 747 through a summer squall. He even looked the part. Whereas Tim Kaine was like the chihuahua who never quits yapping.
Indeed, the optics held sway last night with TV’s pundits and Twitter’s keyboard warriors. The insta-consensus was that Pence had done well and that Kaine had apparently overdosed on Starbucks Venti frapuccinos.
But if style is not the determinant, if substance means anything, then the verdict is quite different. Confronted repeatedly with the empirical evidence that Pence’s patron is the most repulsive and ill-qualified presidential nominee in memory (or, arguably, ever), Pence could barely muster a defense. The optic that sticks most in my mind is Pence shaking his head at the litany of Donald Trump’s vile insults and preposterous acts — seemingly insisting that what we have captured on video, and documented for the record, is all stuff that never happened.
Kaine recalled how Trump tapped his charitable foundation to make an illegal campaign donation to Florida’s attorney general, who then decided not to pursue a probe of phony Trump University. And Pence just shook his head.
Kaine explained how Trump’s organization does business all around the world, even in countries hostile to America, and there’s no way we would know whether a President Trump would be acting in his financial interest or in the national intertest. And Pence just shook his head.
Kaine, while discussing the immigration issue, said that Trump wants to create “a deportation force.” Indeed, Trump explicitly stated, on MSNBC, “You’re going to have deportation force.” But Pence just shook his head.
Kaine quoted Pence’s recent declaration — echoing Trump — that autocrat-thug Vladimir Putin is a better leader than the president of the United States. And Pence just shook his head. (Even though he explicitly stated on Sept. 8 that “Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.”)
And when he wasn’t shaking his head in his attempts to ward off factual reality, he was verbally denying factual reality.
When Kaine talked about Trump’s foreign policy ignorance, he offered an example: “Donald Trump … didn’t know that Russia had invaded the Crimea.” Pence replied, “Oh, that’s nonsense.” Whereupon Kaine served up the exact quote: “[Trump] was on a TV show a couple months back, and he said, ‘I’ll guarantee you this: Russia’s not going into the Ukraine.’ And he had to be reminded that they had gone into the Crimea two years before.”
Pence’s inexplicable reply: “He knew that …. Most of what you said is completely false, and the American people know that.”
And when he wasn’t busy denying factual reality, he got stuck in the Trump muck with no way out. Especially on the issue of Trump’s secret tax returns.
Moderator Elaine Quijano posed this question: “Gov. Pence, recently the New York Times released part of Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax return and reported that he could have avoided paying federal income taxes for years. Yesterday, Mr. Trump said he brilliantly used the laws to pay as little tax as legally possible. Does that seem fair to you?”
Pence bobbed and weaved, ducked and dived. He began his reply by complaining that Kaine was using “a lot of pre-done lines.” Then he fled the question at great speed, by fastening on the economy: “Hillary Clinton and Senator Kaine want to … run this economy into a ditch.”
Kaine: “I am interested to hear whether he’ll defend his running mate’s not releasing taxes and not paying taxes.”
Pence: “Absolutely, I will …. Well, this is probably the difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kaine. And, I mean, Hillary Clinton and Senator Kaine — God bless you for it, career public servants, that’s great. Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician. He actually built a business. Those tax returns that were — that came out publicly this week show that he faced some pretty tough times 20 years ago …. His tax returns showed he went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used. And he did it brilliantly.”
Kaine sprang the trap: “How do you know that? You haven’t seen his tax returns.”
As we already know, financial experts are stunned that any businessman could rack up losses of nearly one billion dollars in a single year — the reckless mismanagement is obvious — and then take a virtual government bailout at the expense of the average taxpayer. But Pence doesn’t actually know whether Trump was brilliant or incompetent, because, as Kaine reminded him, “You haven’t seen his tax returns.”
Pence soldiered on anyway: “[Trump] created a business that’s worth billions of dollars today.”
Again, Kaine yapped at his heels: “How do you know that?”
Pence sputtered on: “Donald Trump has created tens of thousands of jobs ….” (He’s lucky Kaine didn’t force him to defend all the Trump jobbers who’ve never gotten paid.)
Kaine wasn’t done: “Donald Trump started this campaign in 2014 and he said, ‘If I run for president, I will absolutely release my taxes.’ He’s broken his first promise.”
Pence, amazingly: “He hasn’t broken his promise.”
Another tactic was to accuse Kaine of doing what Trump has been doing for the past 16 months: conducting an “insult-driven campaign.” According to Pence, Kaine’s listing of Trump’s insults — about women, the disabled, Mexicans, John McCain, seemingly everyone on the planet except Putin — was somehow an indictment of the Clinton campaign for bringing them up. He simply denied that “Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them.” A remarkable statement, given the fact that Trump’s “things” were recorded while he said them.
Oh, but the optics! The calm presentation! Pence lied and denied and shook his head sooooo sooooothingly.
But I doubt this debate will matter much. Its shelf life is very short, because the A-listers with the universal name ID will meet again on Sunday. On the other hand, Pence’s shelf life could be very long. By joining this ticket and doing his duty last night, he took one for the Republican team; and by articulating the pro-life principles that are dear to the hearts of evangelical Christian voters (this was during the waning moments of the debate, when the topic turned to abortion), he shored up Trump’s right flank for next month’s likely loss — but, more importantly, positioned himself nicely for the 2020 Republican primaries.
Which was surely his ultimate goal.