Mike Pence won and Donald Trump lost is one way of summing up Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate; Tim Kaine lost and Hillary Clinton won is another. The Republican governor of Indiana out preformed his Democratic rival in their televised duel at Longwood University in Farmville, but his defense of Trump was lackluster, at best. Kaine largely disappointed fans that had expected him to prevail in such a policy-centered faceoff, but he stood up for Clinton and defended her to the hilt. As one commentator put it, the difference between the two is that Kaine actually wants to be U.S. vice president in 2016 while Pence may be angling to be a presidential candidate in 2020.
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Pence gave Republicans who are dispirited because of Trump’s descent in the polls a rare reason to smile. He may also have encouraged ideological conservatives who don’t like Trump but feel they have no other choice but to support him. Unlike Trump, who thrives on improvisation and abhors details, Pence prepared himself well for the debate and mostly dominated it. Kaine also prepared, but possibly overdid it: he was chomping at the bit, barely controlling himself, repeatedly interrupting Pence and coming across as the more desperate of the two. Pence did better than most people expected and Kaine disappointed those who had held high hopes.
Pence’s main problem, which could ultimately reverse the aura of success in which he left Farmville on Tuesday night, is that he defended Trump statements that the candidate never made and denied positions that Trump clearly took and can be easily corroborated. Pence ignored Kaine’s incessant demands that he back Trump, and the Republican’s consistent refusal became more prominent as time went by. Pence’s triumph could be tarred in the next few days as fact-checkers juxtapose his version of reality with reality itself. It’s not completely clear how Trump himself will react either, both to Pence’s obvious aversion to sticking up for him and to the accolades that are being heaped on him from most Republicans for his performance.
Kaine, on the other hand, may not have lived up to expectations but may have drawn blood from Trump nonetheless. He latched onto the GOP candidates more controversial sayings like a bulldog and insisted that Pence take a stand, which, in a glaring omission, he didn’t. Towards the end of the debate Pence quipped “you’re whipping out that Mexico thing again” which amused the audience but may not be viewed as particularly humorous by Hispanic voters.
The most glaring gap between the two revolved around Vladimir Putin when Pence went way off Trump’s admiring script and called him “a small and bullying man.” Pence was also much more forceful than Trump regarding Syria, advocating active U.S. intervention, but on this issue Kaine wasn’t far from him.
The two also clashed on Israel and the nuclear deal with Iran, with Kaine asserting that it had stopped Tehran’s nuclear drive and somewhat erroneously enlisting IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in his defense. Pence said the deal paved the way for an eventual Iranian nuclear bomb and also repeated the exaggerated claim that Iran had received $150 billion as a result of the deal. Pence noted Kaine’s boycott of Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress and the Democrat replied that he had met with the prime minister separately. And so on.
Although both are religious - Kaine a devout Catholic and Pence a Catholic turned Evangelical - the two candidates clashed on the so-called “culture wars” that dominated the 2012 elections but have largely disappeared from this election campaign. Kaine said that while he opposed abortions he believes women should have the final choice over their bodies while Pence presented the traditional conservative line opposing abortions altogether. It was here he might have made his gravest mistake, when trying to excuse Trump’s support for punishing women who undergo abortions by saying the GOP candidate is “not a polished politician.” It’s not clear whether he meant that he doesn’t know how to conceal his true opinion or that he has no control over the words coming out of his mouth, though both interpretations might not go over too well with the Trump campaign.
Vice presidential debates have never made much of a difference in presidential elections, especially given the second round awaiting Trump and Clinton in St. Louis on Sunday. Nonetheless, Pence’s solid performance may arrest the momentum of Trump’s fall in the polls and set the stage for his effort to stage a comeback. If Pence gets the credit for such a turnaround - but Trump ultimately loses - it could very well set him up as a leading GOP contender in 2020.
Although both sides declared their candidate the winner, the Republicans who came to the “spin room” near the Longwood auditorium sported smiles that were more genuine and presented arguments that were more persuasive. The Democrats based their claim that Kaine was the winner less on his performance and more on their criticism of Pence’s. But the true winners of the evening, it seems, were the students and staff at Longwood, a veteran but relatively small university, as well as their host town Farmville, who enjoyed a rare 24 hours in the national media’s spotlight.
The last time Farmville made the national headlines was half a century ago, when city managers shut down public schools for over five years to avoid the need to integrate them. This fact was highlighted less than the brave and trailblazing strike put on in 1951 by 16 year old African American Barbara Johns, who was one of the first protesters against segregation and whose struggle was ultimately fused with the petitioners in the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education court case. Farmville was also the scene of Confederate General Robert E Lee’s final staff meeting before going to the Civil War’s last battle in adjacent Appomattox. Finally, Farmville was the venue for the South’s sole settlement of free African Americans, who, because they viewed it as their Promised Land, called their home Israel Hill.