FARMVILLE, Va. ― The best joke about the 2016 vice presidential debate had already been told long before a nation of wags took to Twitter Tuesday morning in advance of the only vice presidential debate. Credit for the top jape goes to “The Young Turks’” Cenk Uygur, who told Seth Meyers on the Sept. 8 edition of “Late Night”: “I think there’s some chance that the V.P. debate already happened.”
And who could say otherwise until Tuesday night, when, at long last, America received reassurance that two vice presidential candidates existed, and that a debate between the two of them would air on television.
It may be worth a brief recap of who our would-be future vice presidents actually are. Tim Kaine is the former governor of Virginia, selected by Hillary Clinton to be a safe ― so very very safe! ― choice as running mate (and perhaps help lock down his home state), over the muted objections of the more liberal portion of the Democratic base, who might have preferred a candidate of a more populist flavor.
Mike Pence, by contrast, is the current governor of Indiana, selected by Donald Trump to absorb as little of the spotlight as possible (and maybe help keep the evangelical base at home). According to reports, the most notable objector to Trump’s choice was, puzzlingly, Trump himself ― who in one of his patented late-night crises briefly attempted to call backsies on his pick after it became common knowledge.
Presumably, Pence and Kaine have been out on the campaign trail, working hard for the names above theirs on the ticket. Thus far, they have successfully made themselves total non-factors, as far as the media lens is concerned.
Tuesday night, however, brought a brief interruption in their irrelevance, as both men were forced to spend their first extended stay in the spotlight since their parties’ respective conventions. For Pence and Kaine, it was a new chance to make a first impression. It was a real pity that they were doing so in the midst of a campaign that’s already proven to be the ne plus ultra of gaudy, angry, multicolored clusterfucks.
And it’s safe to say that the impression left by our would-be future vice presidents was that they really, really prefer that everyone focus on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Which may not be a bad thing, who knows? But it was hard to get to know these two men, and their own political beliefs.
Efforts were occasionally made. Right at the outset, the evening’s moderator ― CBS News’ Eliane Quijano ― put the spotlight squarely on the two vice presidential nominees, asking each if they had the character and the skills to step in at a moment’s notice to take over the presidency, should tragedy occur. Kaine was quick to cite his “experience at all levels of government,” but before we had the chance to hear specifics, he shrugged off the attention and presented himself as Hillary Clinton’s “right hand.” He then roughly threw the attention back on the man at the top of the GOP ticket. Citing his son, currently on deployment in the U.S. Marines, Kaine said the thought of Trump becoming commander in chief “scared him to death.”
Kaine was clearly spoiling for a fight, but Pence deferred at first, speaking humbly, describing himself as a “small town boy” who was simply thankful to Donald Trump for extending him the opportunity to serve on the ticket. “I would hope, and even pray,” he said, to meet that challenge “with a lifetime of experience.” Perhaps everyone who goes to work for Trump has to do the same thing.
At that point, the focus of the debate immediately swung back to the absent stars atop the ticket, with Pence and Kaine being forced by Quijano to account for and defend their masters’ sins. “Why do so many people distrust [Clinton]?” Quijano asked Kaine. “Why do so many Americans think Trump is simply to erratic?” she inquired of Pence. The questions almost instantly brought the two men into combat and constant interruption. It made for a wild argument, but whatever the two men were bringing to the ticket themselves was soon left far behind as each rattled their blades at the other’s better half, like matadors stalking absent bulls.
It wasn’t long before this ostensible debate became something more like a cheerleading contest.
Kaine effortlessly deployed his first “dad joke” of the night on Clinton’s behalf: “There is a choice for the American electorate: Do you want a ‘you are hired’ president ― or a ‘you are fired’ president.” Pence, stuck mopping up the mess of Trump’s billion-dollar debt write-off from two decades ago, towed the Trump company line like a lifer: “He went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax code just the way it was supposed to be used.” “Brilliantly,” in fact.
Between the attacks and defenses of their running mates, and the bland recitation of party dogma, there were occasional moments when the two men managed to insist that they were alive and in this world, with their own experiences and ideas. Kaine referenced the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech as a particularly trying time in his political life. Pence spoke feelingly about the pride he felt visiting his uncle, a beat cop on the streets of Chicago.
In these too-brief moments, actual identities threatened to emerge. And on occasion, the actual decisions that the two men have made in their own political careers briefly flickered with relevance.
One such moment came during the discussion of Syrian refugee resettlement ― as it happens, a concern in the current news cycle. As governor, Pence accepted federal money for refugee resettlement and then refused to give it to organizations if they used it to resettle Syrians in Indiana. But this week, in a blow to Pence, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit “ruled unanimously ... that the governor has no authority to withhold funding from refugee resettlement organizations that are guaranteed aid under federal law,” HuffPost’s Elise Foley and Cristian Farias wrote. Judge Richard Posner was especially critical of Pence, saying that his discrimination against Syrians was based on unfounded “nightmare speculation.”
Kaine happily put Pence on the defensive for a policy that the former Virginia governor decried as anti-Muslim and “discriminatory.” Pence, citing the Paris attacks, proudly declaimed that he stood by his original decision. For a minute, the audience was reminded that that these two men actually did things, in their own political careers.
But the gravitational pull of Trump and Clinton was too strong. Just as the audience was starting to get within peering distance of the two debaters, they were locking horns anew ― this time over which presidential candidate had been the most insulting on the campaign trail. It was pretty clear that there might not be any debt in Clinton’s ledger to lay alongside Trump’s litany of broadsides if she’d never uttered the phrase “basket of deplorables.” Pence might have deploring that statement, but not the opportunity to cite it. He reminded the audience of Clinton’s controversial utterance with obvious relief. He’d have had nothing to work with, otherwise.
Over the larger course of the debate, Quijano’s attempts to sound out the vice presidential nominees on their own policy preferences and political opinions were met with responses that threw the attention back on Clinton and Trump. Has the threat of terrorism diminished? “In some ways” yes, Kaine said, but more importantly, Clinton has had the lessons of Sept. 11 “seared onto her.” By what means would millions of undocumented immigrants be expelled from the United States? “Donald Trump said we are going to move those people out,” declared Pence, without much elaboration. What will the Clinton campaign do about Russia? According to Kaine, they’ll “start with not praising Vladimir Putin as a great leader.”
At one point, Kaine was debating whether Pence was even adequately defending his partner. “Six times tonight,” Kaine said, “I have said to Governor Pence, I can’t imagine how you would defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next. And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate.” That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true ― it’s just that Pence’s main defense of Trump’s many coarse statements was to simply insist that he’d never said them in the first place.
Finally, there came a moment when these two career politicians seemed to snap to life ― when Quijano asked them to personally account for the role of faith in their personal and public life. For Kaine, it was an opportunity to speak of the influence that the Jesuits had on his life, and how he’d tried to balance the practices of his faith with public service. Pence rose to the question himself, laying out big areas of disagreement with Kaine, but not doing so in an unkind manner. It was a moment when their own identities seemed to matter, when the line between faith and the state gets discussed and drawn, and where real differences between these two men and their running mates might lie.
Alas, all of this happened in the closing moments of the evening. Quijano asked her final question and all that was left to do was for each man to refer to his campaign’s branding. “Hillary is running a campaign about stronger together,” said Kaine. “When you hear [Trump] say he wants to make America great again, I believe it,” offered Pence.
Vice presidential debates aren’t often high-stakes affairs ― they are basically as perfunctory as the role of vice president itself. But four years ago, America got to watch a tangle between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan ― two men with undiminishable places in the firmament of American politics. On this Tuesday night in Farmville, Virginia, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence made little effort to attest to their own identities. The only really remarkable thing about them was that they’d been chosen by other people who weren’t in the room.
Essentially, the only “vice presidential debate” that really mattered happened a long time ago, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump picked them to appear on their campaign logos. And now, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine can re-submerge themselves in the background of their running mates’ wild hurly-burly.