Kaine's Debate Performance Reveals the Structural Problems with the Clinton Campaign

If one were cryogenically frozen for the past 18 months, revived only to catch the recent vice presidential debate, it's quite possible they might reach the conclusion that Donald Trump was enjoying a solid lead over Hillary Clinton. What else could explain the smart aleck performance by Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine?

Kaine did his best to prove he was the obnoxious student whose hand is constantly raised, for he alone knows the answer to the question posed.

For his part, Mike Pence presented himself as the adult in the room, fully expecting a grown-up conversation. But that must be a shared understanding on both sides if there is going to be a judicious conversation about the issues important to our common life.

Kaine consistently talked over Pence. He rudely invoked his thoughts during time allotted for Pence. That's not to suggest Pence did not do likewise, but the preponderance of the infractions rested with Kaine.

Ironically, Trump was vilified, and justifiably so, for similar boorish behavior in the debate against Clinton. Are the rules different when it's two men debating? Did team Clinton during the debate preparation instruct Kaine to be Trump-like because he was debating a male counterpart?

Kaine seemingly went into the debate with the myopic mission to prove to the minuscule numbers who are truly undecided with groundbreaking information that Trump was a liar, unworthy to serve as president.

The contrarian could argue that Pence was less than truthful in some of his remarks. Perhaps. But to reach that conclusion, as justification for Kaine's performance, is to negate the power of television. Style matters.

Style had much to do with a majority watching the first 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate who believed Kennedy won, while those listening on the radio reached the opposite conclusion. In the 21st century television age, Kaine was Nixon.

If there was any good news for the Clinton campaign, it had to be that this perfunctory exercise known as the vice presidential debate does little to move the needle in public opinion. If that were the case, wouldn't Michael Dukakis have had a better showing against George H. W. Bush during the 1988 campaign?

That was the vice presidential debate when Lloyd Bentsen famously told Dan Quayle, after Quayle had compared his experience to John F. Kennedy:

"I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Even with the most memorable zinger since presidential debates became a standard practice in 1976, managed Dukakis a mere 111 electoral votes in his landslide defeat.

What was most unfortunate about Kaine's performance was that he was given a role that he was not well suited.

For much his career, Kaine has parlayed a reputation of being the "happy warrior"--think Jack Kemp or Hubert Humphrey. Instead he was Samuel L. Jackson playing Hamlet or Luciano Pavarotti singing Purple Haze.

One of the primary responsibilities of the vice presidential candidate is that of attack dog. But that can only be accomplished if one finds comfort in the manner of their choosing. Kaine clearly looked like a fish out of water, flapping and flailing, gasping for the oxygen of his talking points, but ultimately to no avail.

He didn't look like a candidate part of a ticket leading in the polls, the cloud of desperation needlessly hovered over his every word. In doing so, his debate performance underscores a structural problem of the Clinton campaign.

I wrote back in August when Clinton enjoyed a post election bounce:
"Clinton's Achilles Heel as a campaigner appears to be her inability to get out of her own way. In what would be an ironic twist, just as Trump is partially responsible for her current lead, she could return the favor."

That observation seemed to have infected Kaine at a most inopportune moment.

The Clinton campaign for its virtues finds it difficult to close the deal. Quite frankly, this race should not be as close as it appears.

After the first debate where Clinton regained a solid lead in the polls, Trump became less her adversary than time. At some point, the campaign must look like winners, not brimming with overconfidence, but certainly a nod of reassurance to the American people. Are not the differences clear between the two candidates?

A simple rhetorical deflect like Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" before discussing the Clinton-Kaine vision for the future would have proven more effective than the overbearing manner Kaine chose to convince the American people of Trump's loose association with the truth.