If there is one idea that many people took away from Tuesday night's debate, it was that Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence was not there to defend the Donald Trump who has spent the past 14 months mounting a presidential campaign and named Pence his running mate.
Pence flat-out denied things that Trump has said, on tape and on the record in print. He described an immigration policy around which Trump's campaign has been largely framed in the most neutral, scarcely accurate manner possible. And he described Trump's nearly $1 billion in business losses on his 1995 tax returns as nothing more than an example of a wisely used deduction. But there was at least one thing that Pence did not try to evade and was prepared to defend.
During one of many moments of cross talk and disagreement with Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), the Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee, Pence said that comments Trump made in a June 2015 speech announcing his plans to run for the White House have been misunderstood or deliberately truncated in all the reporting about that speech since.
Take a look at this exchange, pulled from a transcript of Tuesday night's debate:
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 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.
Now, it is true that Trump's infamous declaration that Mexican undocumented immigrants are "rapists" and "criminals" was followed by an aside that included the words, "some of them are good people, I assume." But this has indeed been reported, widely. What Pence (and anyone else sold on the idea that Trump's comments have simply been misunderstood or taken out of contest) seems unable to grasp is that the act of declaring an entire group prone to illegal activity is about as close to a textbook example of bigotry and xenophobia as possible.
In making those comments in a presidential announcement speech — the kind of address which is typically carefully written, delivered and staged and almost always framed around the ways in which an individual candidate would advance the country and keep it connected to its core ideals — Trump set himself and his campaign apart. And his aside about the possibility that some are "good people" does not negate the remainder of what he said.
Trump has run a campaign based on the idea that he will say things, propose things and do things that others will not because he does not allow himself to be held to social conventions regarding open displays of bigotry or policies which codify the idea that certain groups are fundamentally suspect. Trump has tried to make a virtue of what he calls "politically incorrect" speech.
On Tuesday, Pence took on the unwise task of trying to pretend that those goals have not been a part of the Trump campaign all along. It was a very strange issue on which to make a stand.