Some thoughts on the vice presidential debate:
1. Before the debate began, the announcers were remarking that VP debates rarely matter. But as a fan of Tim Kaine from his days as Governor of Virginia, I found myself thinking, “They don’t USUALLY matter, but my man Tim is going to be so awesome that he’ll make it matter!”
2. Halfway through Kaine’s first answer, I found myself thinking, “Well, at least the VP debate doesn’t really matter.”
3. Mike Pence had one job: to reassure Republicans who hate Trump to stick with the ticket because Trump would have a grownup in the room with him. Pence performed this job very well.
4. Yes, Pence was remarkably dishonest, denying Trump said and did things that Trump absolutely said and did. For that reason, many may be inclined to dismiss critiques of Pence’s performance in relation to Kaine’s as mere “theater criticism.” But that’s absurd.
5. Tim Kaine’s rhetorical incompetence tonight was, to quote Andrew Sullivan, “political malpractice.” He seemed totally unprepared for Pence’s denials of what Trump said and did, but anyone who has ever argued with anyone knows full well that the accused’s first instinct is often to knee-jerk respond with, “No I didn’t!” — even if it’s a lie.
6. Kaine’s biggest asset to the Clinton campaign is his aww-shucks likability. By pushing him to be the attack dog with an unending slew of canned, corny lines, the Clinton campaign managed to take one of the warmest, most authentic people in American politics and turn him into someone who sounded phony.
7. I have been criticized as sexist, perhaps fairly, for saying that Hillary Clinton’s public speaking style often reads as inauthentic, but Kaine’s performance proves that while gender certainly plays a huge role in how Clinton’s speaking is perceived, the incompetence of the Clinton campaign is also a tremendous issue. These are many of the same party operatives who trained Al Gore to come across as a human automaton and war hero John Kerry to come across as a disingenuous pansy. Now they’re doing the same to Kaine.
8. Successful political advisers don’t try to mold the candidate into something that he or she isn’t; they find who the candidate authentically is and figure out how to make that jibe with what the campaign needs. That means you don’t try to turn the nicest guy in politics into an attack dog, because he’ll just end up falling on his face.
9. Kaine doesn’t have to be the one to disqualify Trump ― Trump does enough of that himself, and Clinton clearly takes glee in attacking Trump on her own. Kaine would have been MUCH better utilized by being warm and likable, making goofy dad jokes, building a rapport with an audience that still doesn’t know him well, and then talking warmly about how great Hillary is.
10. Instead, we got canned stupid lines and Pence calling him out on canned stupid lines.
11. And speaking of Pence, if Kaine was going to go after ANYBODY, it would make a lot more sense to go after the guy sitting across from him – and there’s a lot to go after, especially with Pence’s virulent anti-gay law and encouraging businesses not to hire gay workers. Those issues are not only hugely important in their own right, but they are particularly important to young people, who need to be motivated to vote. Pence is the embodiment of everything those young people hate on a profound and visceral level, and all Kaine could talk about was Trump’s tax returns.
12. Kaine seemed to have no point of view on Pence at all. In a debate, you need to have a point of view on your opponent. Hillary’s point of view on Trump was clear: “Can you believe this guy?” Kaine’s point of view on Pence could have been “He’s a good man who is in service to a bad man and should be better than this.” It could have been, “He’s working for a bigoted man and passed bigoted laws of his own; they’re two peas in a pod.” It could have been ANYTHING! Instead, it was nothing.
13. The name of the game right now isn’t to appeal to a mushy political “center” that doesn’t really exist, but rather to activate one’s own political base. Kaine could have done that by talking about progressive priorities, by defending President Obama’s legacy, or both. He did basically neither.
14. I said in 2008 that I wasn’t supporting Clinton in the primary in part because I thought she was unelectable. That formulation had some to do with gender, some to do with baggage from Bill, and a lot to do with the team she’d surrounded herself with, the folks who seem hell bent on stripping anything resembling a personality out of mainstream Democratic candidates. Now they’re working their magic on Tim Kaine.
15. Today, the progressive spin is that it didn’t look great for Kaine in the room but he did a better job of defending his running mate than Pence, and that’s true. The ads showing Pence saying Trump didn’t say what he said next to Trump actually saying it are cute, but everyone knows at this point that Trump says indefensible things. The goal right now is to convince progressives and independents that what Trump says matters enough to vote for Clinton even if they don’t like her, or to find ways to remind folks that there really is a lot to like about her. Kaine could have served either of those goals, but again, he did neither.
16. Hey, at least vice presidential debates don’t matter, right?