Impressions of the Mike Pence/Tim Kaine Debate
Can you stand another missive from an American presidential race junkie? I watched the Mike Pence/Tim Kaine debate last evening. My general take was that Mike Pence won on style and Tim Kaine won on substance. But it wasn’t much of a victory from either side. The Pence strategy simply worked better because throughout he remained on message and was unflappable under attack. When Mike was clutched in the corner and the jabs kept coming at Pence’s waist, Mike pivoted very well by often throwing his presidential candidate, Trump, under the bus. Tim Kaine, on the other hand, threw himself under the bus for Hillary.
Kaine was mediocre to poor as an attack dog, interrupting too often at the beginning, repeating points too many times – on Donald Trump’s taxes – and took too long to find his stride and let the true Tim Kaine emerge – the nice polite guy with excellent principles and a substantive record. He had the opposite trajectory to Donald Trump in the latter’s first debate with Hillary; he improved enormously, with some fallbacks, as the debate wore on. Mike Pence, on the other hand, always remained smooth and unruffled, but in the last one-third began to reveal himself as a self-righteous moralistic schoolmarm rather than a politician capable of empathy and compromise.
As an aside, I thought that Elaine Quijano has been the best moderator if the three occasions are compared – last night’s debate with the presidential debate and the previous occasion when Trump and Hillary were on the same stage but were not debating. On the other hand, in spite of generally being an improvement, Elaine did not fact check, did not prevent the debaters from running on well over time, especially Mike Pence, allowed total pivoting away from her excellent questions and allowed far too much crosstalk that almost made it impossible to follow the discussion. Clearly, moderators are harpooned if they stand too far back and allow the debaters to confront one another but might be doubly harpooned if they actually tried to referee the debate, holding each of the candidates responsible when they lied and delivered low blows.
Most of all, I thought Tim Kaine missed a number of opportunities to undermine Mike Pence as he clearly delivered his over-rehearsed punch lines in executing the Democratic Party strategy decision to focus almost exclusively on Trump and letting Pence off the hook on a number of issues. Let me illustrate with the issues where he pinned Mike Pence on the ropes. Kaine did it best on the issue of abortion and, in the process, linked Trump with Pence’s reactionary policies. As Tim pointed out clearly and unequivocally, both he and Hillary were pro-choice candidates, even though he personally was a believing and practicing Catholic who was against abortion. Mike Pence, on the other hand, not only admitted but defended his belief (and Donald’s) that the state should interfere in the wombs of women who get pregnant and not only would not provide medical insurance for abortions, but prosecute women who sought an abortion. Kaine alluded to but did not exploit the fact that, as governor of Indiana, Pence signed a law this year which obligated women to have funerals or cremation for aborted foetuses. As well as he did, I thought Tim missed an opportunity to highlight this issue more, but it is easy enough for spectators to second guess political candidates.
I thought Mike’s honesty and critical self-reflection came through best when he was asked about his most difficult choice when he had been governor of Virginia. He opposed the death penalty, as did his church, but the laws of Virginia mandated the death penalty. So when he could find no extenuating circumstances to remit the death penalty in a specific case, he allowed the execution to go ahead. Mike Pence, in contrast, seemed to pretend he was humble and torn in a case of justice, but came across as disingenuous. After all, he was not torn at all when he said, “I support the death penalty.”
At the end of September, Mike Pence stated that he would refuse to pardon Keith Cooper who had served 10 years of a 40-year sentence after eye witnesses recanted their testimony and there was proof that there was no Cooper DNA at the crime scene. Pence took this stand in spite of the unanimous recommendation of the Indiana parole board. Why? Because this wrongly accused and convicted man, in his view, had a duty, not only to prove he was innocent, but had to, at great personal expense, exhaust all other remedies before Governor Mike Pence would consider a pardon request. However, for legal reasons that sped up his release from jail, Cooper could not use the courts to win a pardon. Cooper was caught in a Cath-22 of Mike Pence’s making. Therefore, a felony conviction, remains on record limiting Cooper’s job prospects.
Where government financial relief should have been immediately forthcoming for the wrongfully convicted, Mike Pence threw this innocent man under the bus once again as he often did to Donald Trump in the debate. Mike Pence appears on the surface as a Trump loyalist, but Trump demands absolute loyalty and there is no sign that Mike Pence is willing to go down in flames with Donald Trump and instead is focused on his own campaign to be the Republican candidate for president in 2020.
There was a good debate on the justice system and policing in general, but the two explicitly differed on stop and frisk, a policy which Trump also promotes. Tim Kaine missed an opportunity to push Mike Pence on this issue. It was on the justice system issue on which Mike Pence appeared to be most self-reflective, but why did Tim Kaine not puncture Mike’s righteousness by pointing out how Pence as governor of Indiana refused to pardon an innocent man after he had unjustly been incarcerated for 10 years?
What was lost in the debate, except on the abortion issue, was the fact that Mike Pence is a religious troglodyte. He is homophobic and anti-LGBT, arguing not that a governor is there to enforce the law of the land, but to enforce his own personal moral code whatever the law. So he defended a bill to protect civil servants who, as a matter of conscience, refused to deliver state services in Indiana to same-sex couples. Can you imagine that if he happened to be a racist or anti-Semitic, he would defend the right of civil servants of the state to ignore their legal obligations and not provide services to Blacks or Jews if those acts assailed their consciences. But, of course, in Pence’s mind, being homophobic is ok, but anti-Semitism and racism are not.
Tim Kaine could have pointed out how such a stance was so antithetical to the American constitution in a much clearer and more forceful way if he was not determined to keep on script and focus almost exclusively on attacking Trump. So he also omitted to point out how Mike Pence’s policies led to declines in tourism, in cancellation of conventions in the state, a state that may have balanced its budget under his governorship, but a state which also ranked lowest in economic growth in the Midwest, a state where average wages dropped from $53,500 in 2000 to $46,900 in 2015. No wonder that he and Trump believe the economy has been driven into the ground. In Indiana, Pence’s trickle-down economics which he shares with Donald Trump, was a major contributor to that effect. Tim Kaine could have skewered Mike Pence on this specifically instead of just reiterating general criticisms of trickle-down economics. Kaine did succeed in pointing out repeatedly that Trump’s tax policies would benefit the rich like himself and punish the middle class, and at the same time, would add far more to the national debt that any of Hillary Clinton’s policies would.
Two other areas in which Mike Pence was very weak and got off the hook were issues on which Tim Kaine could have pierced both Pence and Trump with the same thrust. Both the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidate do not, at heart, believe in science. Trump focuses on climate change as a liberal myth while Pence argues that climate has changed as a result of human activity. Tim Kaine could have had Mike Pence throw his boss under the bus on this as well as on the six issues in which he did. On the other hand, Tim Kaine could have gored Mike Pence on his stand on cigarette smoking while also revealing that he had been in the economic pocket of the tobacco industry from which he has received over $100,000 in campaign donations.
After all, did Pence not write an op-ed that said, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill”? After all, “9 out of 10 smokers” he insisted, “do not get cancer.” In fact, the correlation is the exact reverse – in cases of lung cancer death, the death of 9 out of 10 men and women is caused by cigarette smoking. Smoking kills almost half a million Americans each year. SMOKING DOES KILL. Has Pence not consistently opposed legislation to retard tobacco use, even opposing an agreement to which the tobacco industry had signed on in a suit with opponents of big tobacco? Mike Pence said it was more government regulation and Tim Kaine missed an opportunity to impale Pence’s cool but rigidly Republican anti-regulation dogmas.
But what about the big issues like immigration, foreign and economic policy? On the latter, I have already referred to the fallacies of trickle-down economics which Tim Kaine pointed out, but without pinning the specific tail on Pence as the donkey. On foreign policy, Kaine held his own on getting rid of Iran’s nuclear stockpile, on Hillary’s dealings with Russia, on Hillary’s Middle East policies. But he repeated over and over again Trump’s possible ties to Russian economic interests. The issue is not, however, as Eric Trump pretended it was, Trump’s investments in Russia, but Russian oligarch loans to the Trump organization. Kaine focused on Trump’s and Pence’s praise for Putin as a strong leader contending that if Pence did not know the difference between good leadership and dictatorship, he was wearing blinkers. But on this issue, both Trump and Pence said that Putin was a strong, not a good, leader, so Kaine’s jabs missed their target even as Pence denied he (and Trump) explicitly admired Putin as a leader when both unequivocally did. Because Trump and Pence both believe in strong, not good leadership – and many Americans for some reason seem to be longing for a Turkey-like, for a Philippines-like – you name the country – for we are in an era where disastrous strong leaders but not good leaders are everywhere.
The exchange went as follows:
PENCE: “That is absolutely inaccurate. I said he’s been stronger on the world stage.”
KAINE: “No, you said leader.”
And Kaine was absolutely correct.
Mike Pence clearly came out as a hawk on Syria. but Kaine failed to explore the huge gap between the policies he advocated and the very restricted foreign policy involvement of Donald Trump, his boss.
Tim Laine did point out that Pence’s policies differed radically from Trump’s on six other different issues, but the format of the debate prevented him from expanding on that observation in any detail. After all, Pence may be ardently anti-abortion, but unlike Trump who has been pro-abortion and then converted to support the so-called pro-life position to advance his presidential candidacy, Pence does not come across as Trump does as guilty of misogyny. Pence refused to grab the bait and try to defend Trump’s absolutely scurrilous remarks on women. Kaine could also have pointed out that Trump’s misogyny extends to men who change diapers, for Trump openly mocked such behaviour by men.
Going to another aspect of foreign policy, Pence insisted it was Hillary’s fault in letting Russia get away with the invasion of Georgia and Kaine’s epée slipped off its mark when he correctly said that Russia’s invasion of Georgia took place in August 2008 under Dubbya Bush’s administration when Obama was running for president, but had not yet become president and had not yet named Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. But Kaine did not push back strongly on this issue. Kaine also did not point out how the Obama administration has rolled back ISIS significantly without the commitment of large numbers of American boots on the ground, but for some reason or other – and I cannot figure out why – Kaine’s defence of the complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the failure to conclude a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government did not seem to register or disclose how badly Pence was misconstruing what had taken place.
On immigration, Pence managed to pivot away and obscure in a cloud of rhetoric Trump’s repeated assurances that he will deport not only 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but 4.5 million native-born Americans whose parents were illegals. Pence managed that, not only by shifting from Trump’s revisionism that this is but the final stage of a longer term program, by simply wiping such a policy out of the discussion by side-stepping the attack. In another case of such deftness on the part of Pence, when Kaine repeatedly challenged Pence to defend Donald Trump’s not only abandonment of nuclear proliferation but its promotion, Pence simply lied and said that Trump never said that.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was ignored. Turkey was ignored. Egypt was ignored. North Korea was brought up and Pence seemed to favour an attack, as did Kaine as well. But on this very important issue, they both came across as much more hawkish than Trump as well as Obama. I could go on. I generally appreciated the debate much more than the presidential encounter for it was far more serious, but the Democrats will have to sharpen their game strategy much further if Trump learns from his first debate failures and the way Mike Pence handled himself.