Tim Kaine is a smart guy. Smarter, it would seem, than most of the react-and-respond punditry that dice debates for the popular post-mortem. Pence tried his best to promote his 2020 run for President, but, in the all-important sound-bite wars, Kaine's weird performance was crazy smart, because he and his team understood the core audience for the Vice Presidential debate better.
Vice Presidential debates, when Sarah Palin isn't making a fool of herself, are generally third in viewer preference to golf reruns and watching paint dry. The people who tune in are the hard-cores of both sides of the political spectrum.
There is a lot of messaging going on in any debate, which is why the candidates frequently abuse the questions to launch into their talking points on both sides. Pence was calm and cool, and he made sure that he got in the red meat for the red state voters: The dead-horses of emails, Obamacare, etc. Likewise Kaine served up enough on Israel, women's rights, and the "blue meat" issues to keep his base watchers reasonably happy. He wasn't there to score points with the Democratic base, though.
Where Kaine was really masterful, most likely with the help of the Clinton team's crack staff that handles their polling and demographics, was his realization of the key factors in Tuesday night's debate audience:
- The "moveable" voter watching the debate most likely was heavily conservative, but uncomfortable with Donald Trump's behavior, treatment of women, and treatment of the military;
- There is a new kind of Christian conservative that is not as motivated as their parents to use politics to dictate to people outside of their faith to do as they do;
- Truthiness is not a virtue to that demographic of the moveable conservative base. They have been conditioned to react to "facts" as lies of the liberal media and liberals in general. Feeding them a lot of counters to Pence's prevarications would bounce off like bullets hitting Luke Cage;
- Trump voters may or may not understand lots of the policy nuance, but they groove on his combativeness, something which Pence is uniquely bad at.
Pundits may have been surprised by Kaine's behavior, seeming somewhat, well, Trump-like, but, given those parameters, Kaine was messaging in a way that fell on deaf ears in the punditocracy, but was dog whistling loud and clear to the intended, targeted audience, and setting up next-day sound bites, the lifeblood of all debates, to undermine Pence and keep the discussion focused on both his and Trump's integrity gap.
If you want to hurt Trump/Pence where they live, convince elements of their base that the utter amorality of both Trump and Pence disqualify them from the White House. To do that, you need to resonate with an audience that likes combat more than content in its messaging.
So Kaine served up both. He was everything for which a concerned conservative could hope: He was messaging Trump's bashing of the military, women, and his love affair with Vladimir Putin. Kaine consistently pressed Pence to account for the myriad on-the-record, video and audio recorded outrages of Donald J. Trump.
Pence remained calm, and shook his head and clucked a bit when Kaine asked Pence to square those statements. Governor Pence is well-trained at circumlocution, and tried repeatedly to dance around charges, but pointing out the Kaine was well scripted wasn't getting him away from explaining why Trump bashed John McCain, Mr. Veteran to the GOP establishment. It didn't help him walk back from the statement he made that Putin was a stronger leader than Obama, either, which Kaine was able to paint as a preference, in spite of Pence's protestations.
Meanwhile, while Pence's performance was winning pundit points, a nice, but useless honor, his own talking points, the fear-soaked narrative of Trump-Pence, that America is on the road to doom, and the generalized planless 'we have a plan,' along with the four or five tries to pitch fear that Clinton would shut down Big Coal in the heart of the Coal Patch, were drowned out in Kaine's well-timed outbursts that tend to resonate positively with a few of the fence-sitters in that reality TV mindset that tromps off to Trump rallies.
The takes, immediately after the debate, were that Pence did a good job of setting himself up for a White House run of his own in 2020, and that he "won" the debate on style points, and looking presidential.
Except that this wasn't a presidential debate. It was a vice presidential debate. As Joe Biden demonstrated, twice, it's not about your own messaging. It's about targeting vulnerable demographics in the other party's softest quarter.
The name of the game here was to take a jackhammer to the pillars of the other candidate's support. Chip off just 1 percent, and that's game set and match, at least if you're Team Clinton.
On that score, Kaine was able to give soft Republicans a lot to chew on about the honesty and integrity of their ticket. He did it in a way, too, that primes the pump for the more important second round: Feeding a controversy-hungry news cycle of soap-selling news organizations in the following 48 hours, keeping their debates focus on Pence's empty basket in response to the Kaine's slams of key demographics in that mushy GOP left-edge: Veterans, Republican women, and religious Republicans who are uncomfortable with all of the outright lying that Trump & Co. engage in daily.
Granted, 98 percent of the GOP Kool Aid Krewe who tuned in heard only the voice of their white male saviour from the "Democrat" demons of black and female empowerment. If Kaine chipped off even .5 percent of the base, and got them thinking about the negatives of the GOP candidates going into the next Presidential Debate, that's .5 percent that could tip the election in close races in the favor of Clinton-Kaine.
Tim Kaine seemed crazy? Like a fox...