There won’t be another vice-presidential debate for another four years. But before the 2016 debate recedes too far from memory, it’s worth challenging some of the conventional wisdom about the Senator Tim Kaine—Governor Mike Pence encounter Tuesday night. Contrary to the familiar account, Kaine, not Pence, accomplished more in the debate. And the vice-presidential debate is an important institution that well-serves American democracy.
Some political pundits were quick to declare Governor Pence the winner of the 2016 vice-presidential debate. Whereas Pence projected a calm demeanor, they said, Senator Kaine interrupted, was hyperactive and over-prepared, and failed to look at the camera. Of course style matters in politics. It affects the ability to deliver a message. But so does substance, and so does understanding the enterprise you are engaged in . Pence may have won on style, but Kaine killed him on substance and better understood the undertaking the vice-presidential debate represents. Whereas Pence may have helped himself for the Republican nomination in 2020 he did little to help Donald Trump become president in 2017. By contrast, Kaine’s performance contributed to the likelihood that Hillary Clinton will be president and Kaine vice president in 2017.
Vice-presidential debates introduce the understudies to the electorate but their basic role is to contribute to the discussion of the fundamental issues a presidential election presents regarding the qualities of the presidential candidates, their visions for America, and their programs for achieving those aspirations. Whereas Kaine defended his ticket partner and relentlessly attacked the cross-party candidate in a way that produced material that survived Tuesday night, Pence did little to defend Trump and provided little material for the campaign to use.
Time and again, Kaine invoked indefensible comments that Donald Trump had made disparaging women and Mexicans, persisting in his false birtherism challenge to the legality of the first African-American president, attacking an American-born federal judge as necessarily partial because his parents were Mexican, claiming African-Americans were living in Hell, and asserting that John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured. Kaine repeatedly challenged Pence to defend Trump on these and other points; Pence failed to do so. Then, borrowing a technique Dan Quayle had used effectively in the 1992 vice presidential debate, Kaine cited Pence’s repeated failures to defend his running mate as confirming the merit of the attacks. By contrast, and unlike Pence, Kaine willingly defended Clinton at every opportunity.
Kaine also hammered Trump for his failure to pay taxes, for his failure to disclose his tax returns as have other national candidates, and for the likely conflicts of interest those returns might reveal. After all, what would it mean to have a president heavily in debt to the Russians or Chinese?
Kaine also made a strong argument in support of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion or not.
Unlike Pence, Kaine realized that the debate was not simply about the 90 minutes that 37 million people watched Tuesday night. It was about the clips that the networks and social media made available the rest of the week which reached many more potential voters. Here Kaine provided the Clinton campaign with helpful material showing that Pence could not defend Trump’s indefensible conduct and that when he tried he was reduced to denying that Trump had said things video showed he had said. Thus, Kaine’s performance impeached Pence’s credibility as well as Trump’s conduct.
Kaine’s style may have upset some but it was Pence who produced the gaffe that will likely affect this campaign and become part of debate history. After Kaine referred to Trump’s offensive comments about Mexicans, Pence responded “Senator you’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again.”
Not only did Kaine understand that his audience was not simply those viewing Tuesday night, he also made points likely to resonate with voters Clinton wants to reach—millennials, Sanders supporters, those thinking of supporting a third party or staying at home. Kaine’s pounding of Trump’s disparaging comments and Kaine’s support for choice should appeal to such voters.
Clinton and her inner circle could not have avoided perceiving Kaine as someone who was going all in to help her prevail. Any president wants to know that her running mate has her back but rarely has a vice-presidential candidate done such an impressive job defending the standard-bearer as Kaine did. First-time vice presidential candidates are rarely so willing to sacrifice their own image to advance the interests of their party’s standard bearer. Pence had a more difficult assignment since he needed to show that there would be some adult supervision in the West Wing if Trump won but he seemed more intent on presenting Pence well than advancing Trump’s case.
The Commission on Presidential Debates should not take seriously the suggestion of Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson that the vice-presidential debate be eliminated. In fact, the vice-presidential debate has made an important contribution in elevating the vice presidency, perhaps the most positive institutional development in American government during the last 40 years. The inevitability of a vice-presidential debate gives presidential candidates added reason to choose a running mate who is ready for prime time and it gives the running mates far greater exposure than they would otherwise have. Contributing to vice-presidential competence and democracy should be reason enough to give the institution an eleventh run in 2020, especially given the importance of the vice presidency as an office and as the source of the first presidential successor. Moreover, the vice-presidential debate sometimes provides a richer discussion of campaign issues than the presidential debates provides. The Commission might consider reverting to the practice in the first few cycles of having a panel of journalists, not a single moderator. That might allow for a richer discussion of the issues and might make it easier to keep candidates like Pence from evading issues.
The vice-presidential debate serves an important purpose in making vice-presidential candidates accountable and in contributing to democratic deliberation. In 2016, Kaine contributed to that discussion by exposing some of Trump’s indefensible rhetoric and behavior. By contract, Pence’s winning style sought to obscure a problematic substance.