October 8, 2016

My Take on the Vice Presidential Debate

Tim Kaine, official 113th Congress photo portraitI was planning to watch the Vice Presidential debate the night it aired. As the event drew closer, I realized I was not feeling terribly enthusiastic about doing so. And when I saw that the Republican Party had released a statement hours before the debate started declaring Mike Pence the victor, I figured I wouldn't bother now that I knew the outcome. I recorded the debate and watched it the next day. I have managed to enjoy some football games even though some jackass posted the score on Twitter before I had a chance to watch them. Maybe I could enjoy the debate too.

Separation of Church and State

The most interesting moment in the debate was when the subject of religion and governance (i.e., the separation of church and state) came up. Both Tim Kaine and Mike Pence are known to be quite religious, Christians who insist that they are guided by their faith. One might think this would (or should) be disqualifying in a secular democracy, but the opposite seems more likely to be the case. In any event, the critical issue is less about what these men believe and more about whether they desire to impose it on the rest of us.

I thought that Kaine did well here, as he managed to express his support for separation of church and state while highlighting the fact that Pence seemed far more interested in imposing his religious beliefs on us (e.g., banning reproductive rights, rolling back LGBT civil rights). The way Kaine framed the issue made Pence look bad, but it also seemed accurate given Pence's disturbing record as governor. We don't have to wonder whether Pence is eager to impose his faith on others; we can look to his record and see that he's already done so repeatedly. If Kaine meant what he said here, he seems committed to separating his personal faith from how he would govern.

But Who Won the Debate?

Using the rubric I applied to the first presidential debate, we can start by setting aside the different expectations each candidate had coming into the debate and focusing on the usual ways of evaluating debate performance (e.g., knowledge of subject matter, delivery, points scored). I'd have to give the victory to Kaine here while acknowledging that this one was much closer than the presidential debate. Pence performed better than Trump, and this was no blow out. Pence's frequent lying, blatant denial, and unwillingness to echo the policy positions of his running mate pulled him down and allowed Kaine to edge out the win in terms of the traditional criteria. And yet, Kaine managed to come across as an ass throughout much of the debate. His constant interruptions of Pence made him seem far more Trump-like than Pence did, and I think it undermined what could have been a much stronger performance. By the end of the debate, I found myself stunned that Kaine had somehow managed to come across as even less likable than his running mate.

Unlike the presidential debate, expectations seemed to play a smaller role in the VP debate. Many voters have little idea who these candidates are, and the number of people who watched the debate was down when compared to most recent VP debates. I think it is fair to say that the expectations on these candidates coming into the debate were minimal. I think that Kaine was expected to be the better debater, but the primary difference in expectations was probably that Pence entered with a greater burden based on Trump's lousy performance in the presidential debate. He needed to do well in a way that Kaine probably did not. And since he did generally do well, I'm inclined to give the win to Pence when we evaluate performance based on who did a better job of meeting pre-debate expectations. He came across as calmer and more even-tempered than both Trump and Kaine, and he seemed more presidential than either. I thought that Kaine under performed compared to what was expected of him, mostly because of his Trump-like behavior throughout the debate.

Last, we can look at what each candidate needed to accomplish in the debate and how well each did so. Kaine had the advantage of needing to accomplish far less than Pence. Ideally, he needed to push Pence into defending some of Trump's indefensible statements and policy positions. Pence had a comparatively "yuge" task in front of him. He needed to regain the momentum Trump lost in the first presidential debate, figure out some plausible way of defending the many indefensible statements Trump has made during the campaign, come across as presidential in a way Trump hasn't been able to, and more. Both men did reasonably well here. Kaine did a great job of pushing Pence to defend Trump, and I think he would have easily won this domain had he not behaved so poorly throughout the debate. Pence did the best he could with what he had to work with, and he certainly came across well in terms of temperament and self-control (resisting what must have been an intense urge to punch Kaine); however, the repeated denials where he claimed that Trump never said things we've all seen or heard him saying hurt Pence. This one seems almost too close to call, but I think I'd have to give it to Pence by a slight margin.

Sad to say that if I had to pick a winner of this debate, it would probably be Pence. How can I say that given all his lying, denial, and so on? At the end of the debate, my assessment of Pence was slightly more positive than it was at the beginning of the debate. There isn't anything about his politics that I find appealing, but he performed better than I expected. On the other hand, my assessment of Kaine was far more negative at the end of the debate than it had been at the beginning. I found his frequent interruptions of Pence and his general attitude to be unacceptable for this setting in much the same way I found Trump's behavior during the first presidential debate unacceptable. No, Kaine was not as bad as Trump; however, his behavior undermined what might have otherwise been a strong performance. Had he managed to be civil throughout the debate, I think he would have run away with this one. That he could not do so was a failure.