Who’s in Charge Here: Pence “wins,” but it doesn’t really matter

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — So, another debate is in the books. Last night’s meeting of the two major party candidates for Vice President reminded the country what “normal” politics looks like.

As I wrote last week, I don’t really like to name winners and losers in political debates; there’s no numerical score we can point to as in a baseball game. (Which is why last night’s clear loser was Buck Showalter.) Still, Indiana Governor Mike Pence clearly had the better night. His calm demeanor and measured responses played well in contrast to Senator Tim Kaine’s jittery interruptions.

Pence’s biggest challenge, one he handled well, was to deflect Kaine’s attacks on Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump. Still, in order to do so, Pence had to deny that Trump, and even Pence, actually said the things they said. Pence essentially talked last night about a fictional character called “Donald Trump” who had absolutely nothing to do with the person running for President.

So while Pence had the better night in terms of performance, his strategy of sidestepping Kaine’s attacks – or, to put it less charitably, lying – will provide plenty of fodder for Democratic attack ads this week. (The Clinton campaign has already released a pretty damning video response.)

Historically, vice presidential debates do not have much of an effect on Presidential election results. In general, a voter’s choice has much more to do with the candidates for President or even party labels rather than who is number two on the ticket. Still, that doesn’t mean that the VP Debate was entirely inconsequential; there may be effects, both short-term and long-term, for both campaigns.

In the short-term, Pence’s competent performance might at least help shore up the support of Republican voters who were struggling with the idea of voting for Trump. Pence’s job on the trail has been similar to what he accomplished last night: remind Republican stalwarts that the party is more than just Trump’s latest tweet. I don’t think Pence made a difference in the overall shape of the race, but he at least staunched the bleeding after a rough week for Trump.

The long-term results of Pence’s performance are more about him than his running mate. Pence, the relatively obscure Governor of a Midwestern state, successfully introduced himself to the American public and national media. He has had the unenviable task of supporting Trump without tying himself too tightly to his controversial running mate, and managed to do that last night without making himself look too bad. (If that means lying to do so, then Pence seems comfortable with that kind of Faustian bargain.) At the very least, Pence has put himself at the top of the shortlist for the next round of Presidential speculation – a big step up from where he was before.

In this regard, Pence’s performance was the exact opposite of that of another guy from Indiana, the subject of what is probably the most famous moment in previous Veep debate history: Dan Quayle. Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s epic takedown of Quayle in the 1988 debate – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” – didn’t prevent the Republicans from winning the election. But Quayle’s own political ambitions never recovered (helped along by his spelling errors), and he never held elected office again. Pence’s political career instead got a big boost last night, even if his next election is likely to turn out differently from Quayle’s.

Tim Kaine, on the other hand, was less impressive in trying to tie Pence to Trump. Virginians are used to Kaine’s “dadjoke” public persona, but his typically pleasant personality contrasted starkly with the aggressive role he played last night. (“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” wrote Jeff Shapiro in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.) Still, this was a clear strategy choice by the Clinton-Kaine campaign — “here’s something Trump said, now defend it!” — and Kaine doggedly stuck to it, even as Pence avoided engagement.

The “attack dog” role is a traditional one for a Vice Presidential candidate, even if Kaine may not be well suited for it. (Ironically, since Donald Trump is always in attack mode, Pence wasn’t forced into the same role; he could play good cop to Trump’s bad.) Still, Kaine accomplished enough for the Clinton campaign by forcing Pence to at least listen to his running mate’s words, and the Democrats will be able to get some mileage out of how far Pence had to twist those words to support Trump.

We’ll see if Trump takes any lessons from Pence’s performance – particularly his evasions — for the next Presidential debate, already coming up this weekend. In the meantime, both campaigns could find some pluses from last night’s event. Still, the Trump campaign has to be happier with the results (even if Trump himself reportedly is not).

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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