Wednesday, October 05, 2016

VP Debate Recap: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. Pence's performance demonstrated that the Trump campaign is in fact capable of supplying adequate preparation for a candidate in advance of a debate. This suggests that Trump's more off-the-cuff style in the first presidential debate reflects his own strategic decisions more than the capacity of his campaign staff.

2. Tim Kaine walked into the debate with a well-rehearsed strategy to attack Donald Trump on three main points: his tax returns; his remarks about women, racial minorities, and immigrants; and his attitude towards Russia and Vladimir Putin. Over and over, Kaine attempted to return the discussion to one of these topics, repeating some of the same charges verbatim to Pence's growing exasperation (near the end of the debate, as Kaine mentioned Trump's negative characterization of Mexican immigrants for the nth time, Pence complained to Kaine that "you whipped out that Mexican thing again!"). Pence's equally clear and consistent strategy was to deflect attacks on Trump by flatly denying their validity and even truthfulness without litigating the point more extensively.

3. The result was a fairly unedifying event with an odd energy and rhythm to it. Kaine's hyper-aggressive demeanor seemed likely to play less well in the eyes of the news media—and, perhaps, the viewers—than Pence's cooler style. At the same time, Kaine succeeded in making Trump the major topic of discussion, repeatedly forcing Pence into the position of either defending Trump or letting Kaine's attacks go unanswered. If Pence had hoped to turn the debate into an extensive examination of Clinton's own political vulnerabilities, his opportunity to do so was limited by Kaine's approach, which seemed designed to motivate the party base, play for a tie, and avoid taking a big risk at this stage of the race.

4. At times, viewers could catch a glimpse of what the 2016 campaign might have looked like had someone other than Trump won the Republican nomination. Pence lobbed a few attacks in the direction of the Obama administration on the subjects of the economy, terrorism, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Affordable Care Act, attempting to frame the race as a familiar "change-versus-more-of-the-same" referendum on the incumbent presidency. One could have imagined a Democratic response that in turn attempted to turn the election into a proxy battle over whether Obama was, despite his failures, still a better president than his Republican predecessor George W. Bush. But Trump has a way of shifting attention in his direction, and even the positive media evaluations of Pence's performance have been accompanied by discussions of whether Trump will be satisfied with his running mate's efforts at defending him or even will resent being outperformed by his own vice presidential pick. For better or worse, Trump appears likely to once again dominate media coverage in the aftermath of a debate—even though he wasn't even present this time.