Since he became Trump’s vice-presidential pick, there has been a real tension between Pence’s own, more traditionally conservative positions and Trump’s decidedly unorthodox Republican campaign. (More on those differences here.) This has made the usual role of a vice presidential nominee vouching for his ticket mate very difficult.
And Pence didn’t bother too much with all that on Tuesday night. Basically every time Kaine interrupted him — and Kaine did so mercilessly — and brought up a specific comment from Trump’s campaign, Pence avoided litigating it in-depth, instead opting for the kind of generalities and deflections that would make any debate coach proud.
Through it all, Pence appeared cool, composed and unflappable — a studied debater and one the GOP establishment surely wishes was at the top of the ticket.
Kaine, by contrast, was often grating with his interruptions and staid with his one-liners and talking points, some of them groan-worthy (“You are Donald Trump’s apprentice,” “Do you want a ‘you’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton or do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president in Donald Trump?,” etc.). He was taking one for the team, essentially, playing the role of attack dog and making himself look less attractive in order to help the ticket. People don’t really vote on VP picks, after all.
Pence took a different approach. It’s possible that was the plan all along. Perhaps the Trump campaign decided that it wouldn’t be helpful to really get into the details of what Trump has said. Perhaps they wanted Pence to just run the clock out and avoid making this debate about “X thing Trump said” or “Y thing Trump did” and whether Pence could truly defend it.
But the sum total of it was that Pence didn’t really seem like he was standing up for his running mate. Kaine pushed him over and over again to defend Trump on everything from Vladimir Putin — whom Kaine mentioned more than 20 times — to Trump’s taxes. Pence assured that he was defending Trump and would continue to do so, but it was never terribly forceful or direct. It was almost as if Pence was a GOP Senate candidate trying to say nice things about Trump to avoid inflaming Trump’s myriad supporters but not wanting to be too closely tied to him.
There was, however, one moment toward the end of the debate in which Pence did venture into this territory. It didn’t go well.
After Kaine repeatedly accused Trump of having attacked Mexicans as rapists and criminals, Pence began to quibble with that idea and noted that Trump was referring only to the illegal immigrants that Trump alleges were sent by Mexico, not all Mexicans or even Mexicans more generally.
Here's the exchange:
KAINE: When Donald Trump says women should be punished, or Mexicans are rapists and criminals . . .PENCE: I’m telling you . . .KAINE: . . . or John McCain is not a hero, he is showing you who he is.PENCE: Senator, you’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again. He, look . . .KAINE: Can you defend it?PENCE: There are criminal aliens in this country, Tim, who have come into this country illegally who are perpetrating violence and taking American lives.KAINE: You want to, you want to use a big broad brush against Mexicans on that?PENCE: He also said and many of them are good people. You keep leaving that out of your quote. And if you want me to go there, I’ll go there.
Pence then quickly pivoted to talking about abortion, perhaps realizing that re-litigating Trump’s controversial comments that undocumented immigrants from Mexico are “rapists” and “criminals” — but that “some, I assume, are good people” — wasn’t terribly fruitful.
But that exchange was the exception to the rule in this debate. Pence didn’t put up much of a true defense of Donald Trump at all — at least not in the way Trump appears to need at this point.
And perhaps that was the game plan going in. It’s not all that clear exactly how much Mike Pence helped Donald Trump on Tuesday. VP debates generally aren’t much of a factor in the final presidential results. But it’s crystal clear that he definitely helped himself.