Tim Kaine’s performance in last night’s vice presidential debate was not always easy to watch. He interrupted the moderator and his opponent, Mike Pence, too often. His points were repetitive and occasionally came off as overly scripted.
It gave viewers the impression that Pence was perhaps making very powerful points that Kaine was desperately trying to derail.
Meanwhile, Pence appeared the more reasonable of the two. At times, he was almost a cartoon character of a reasonable person, but it was a much slicker presentation that, on the surface, seemed more competent and confident.
So it’s not surprising that, when the debate ended, a narrow majority of viewers thought that Pence won:
— CNN (@CNN) October 5, 2016
But as the sun rose, a different narrative of the debate emerged.
At this point, it’s important to note that Tim Kaine is a lawyer. Sometimes lawyers cross-examine witnesses, breaking them down in real time for the judge and jury. That’s not what Kaine did last night.
Last night, Kaine conducted a deposition. In a deposition, a lawyer questions a witness outside of the courtroom, but everything is recorded and can be used later on. These aren’t flashy or scripted affairs. A deposition can be repetitive and boring. But over many hours, a skilled lawyer can get what he wants out of a witness.
What Kaine wanted to accomplish last night was to force Pence to react to some of Trump’s most outrageous statements. This was important both to remind people that Trump said those things and to place Pence in the uncomfortable position of having to react.
He pivoted to that topic again and again. This was part of his response to an early question about why some voters distrust Hillary Clinton:
And as a candidate, he started his campaign with a speech where he called Mexicans rapists and criminals, and he has pursued the discredited and really outrageous lie that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
It is so painful to suggest that we go back to think about these days where an African-American could not be a citizen of the United States. And I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult- driven selfish “me first” style of Donald Trump.
Kaine’s response to a question about immigration:
When Donald Trump says Mexicans are rapists and criminals, Mexican immigrants, when Donald Trump says about your judge, a Hoosier judge, he said that Judge Curiel was unqualified to hear a case because his parents were Mexican, I can’t imagine how you could defend that.
Kaine’s response to a question about whether the world is safer than it was 8 years ago:
Donald Trump believes — Donald Trump believes that the world will be safer if more nations have nuclear weapons. He’s said Saudi Arabia should get them, Japan should get them, Korea should get them. And when he was confronted with this, and told, wait a minute, terrorists could get those, proliferation could lead to nuclear war, here’s what Donald Trump said, and I quote: “Go ahead, folks, enjoy yourselves.”
I’d love to hear Governor Pence tell me what’s so enjoyable or comical about nuclear war.
In all, Kaine used the word “defend” eighteen times in a 90-minute debate. At one point, he summarized his efforts.
“Six times tonight, I have said to Governor Pence, ‘I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next.’ And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate,” Kaine said.
Indeed, Pence’s strategy in most cases was to simply to deny that Trump said things that he had actually said. That was a mistake.
The tactic set up the Hillary Clinton campaign to produce this powerful video in the morning.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 5, 2016
Of course, that can be easily dismissed as campaign spin. But the idea that Pence both denied reality and refused to defend Trump sunk in with the media as well.
CNN produced a video that was very similar to the one produced by the campaign.
— Media Matters (@mmfa) October 5, 2016
Politico also noticed Pence’s tactic and presented their conclusion in stark terms.
6 things Trump definitely said that Pence claimed he didn’tTim Kaine came into the vice presidential debate with a clear goal: make Mike Pence own all of Trump’s most…www.politico.comAs did the Washington Post:
Aftermath of Kaine-Pence debate pits reality against alternate realityFARMVILLE, Va. — The first and last vice presidential debate of 2016 was not just a clash of candidates, but a clash…www.washingtonpost.comAnd Slate:
This Wasn’t a Debate. This Was a National Gaslighting.The vice presidential debate does not move votes, and will not move votes. People commit to parties, and then they…www.slate.comAnd Business Insider:
Mike Pence ‘won’ the debate by pretending Donald Trump doesn’t existNational Review editor Rich Lowry summed up what I thought were the most important exchanges of the debate in one tweet…www.businessinsider.comOne way to understand Kaine’s approach was that it wasn’t geared toward winning Tuesday night’s debate, but setting up Hillary Clinton to win on Sunday night, the next presidential debate.
On that score, viewers gave Kaine high marks.
— Ronald Klain (@RonaldKlain) October 5, 2016
The larger point here is that this is a campaign for president, not a debating society. While Pence “won” by some metrics, Kaine was successful in setting a narrative that is most helpful to his running mate.
That might explain why Donald Trump is not happy.
Trump adviser on debate after Pence passed up opportunities to defend him: "Pence won overall, but lost with Trump"
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) October 5, 2016
In other words, Kaine accomplished exactly what he set out to do.