If Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had enough vitriol between them to melt the TV screen, watching Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence debate in Farmville, Virginia, on Tuesday night was like strapping boxing gloves on a pair of very dull toddlers and forcing them to fight. In this contest, there were no winners, despite what the postgame analysts insist.
Kaine in particular was jumpy out of the gate, talking over Pence to the point that moderator Elaine Quijano had to scold them both, saying that no one at home could hear when they spoke over each other.
But once his uppers wore off, Kaine settled into a more natural rhythm, recalling Trump’s egregious quotes about everyone from women to immigrants, wielding those lines like daggers from which Pence was forced to defend himself.
Despite Kaine throwing all of his running mate’s inaccuracies at him, many pundits promptly awarded the win to Pence, because…what? He didn’t physically melt? He didn’t lean over and lick Kaine’s collar? Because he performed better than Donald Trump, a toddler who had to be fished from a vat of Velveeta?
Perhaps the best summation of the otherwise soporific ninety-minute ordeal is the fact that the RNC announced that Pence had “clearly” won the debate…several hours before the debate even happened.
On Trump’s proud boasting about how he shrewdly avoided paying federal income taxes, Pence refused to face the question directly, or at all.
KAINE: But why won’t he release his tax returns?
PENCE: Well, we’re answering the question about — about a business thing, is he —
KAINE: I do want to come back to that, but —
PENCE: His tax returns — his tax returns showed he went through a very difficult time, but he used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used. And he did it brilliantly.
PENCE: And with regard to paying taxes, this whole riff about not paying taxes and people saying he didn’t pay taxes for years, Donald Trump has created tens of thousands of jobs. And he’s paid payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes…
Compared with his yowling, gnashing running mate, Pence did, of course, seem poised and calm. He didn’t scream, he didn’t waggle his hands, he didn’t strangely invoke Rosie O’Donnell. This is a bar set so low it hardly seems worthy of praise, especially because much of what he did say was bizarre and antiquated or just an outright lie. Here’s a choice example from the short interval dedicated to discussing abortion.
PENCE: What I can’t understand is how Hillary Clinton, and now Senator Kaine at her side, is to support a practice like partial-birth abortion. And to hold to the view, and I know Senator Kaine, you hold pro-life views personally, but the very idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their life taken from them is just anathema to me.
This tired line was borrowed from earlier in the debate season, when it was invoked first by Marco Rubio and later by Carly Fiorina. Partial-birth abortions have been illegal in the U.S. since 2003, and at no point did Clinton say she was interested in renewing the practice. And as to whether Trump has said that women who get abortions should be punished:
KAINE: And that is the fundamental difference between a Clinton-Kaine ticket and a Trump-Pence ticket that wants to punish women who make that choice.
PENCE: No, it’s really not. Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that punished women who made the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.
KAINE: Then why did Donald Trump say that?
PENCE: We just never would.
KAINE: Why did he say that?
PENCE: Well, look, it’s — look, he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton. And so —
KAINE: Well, I would admit that’s not a polished —
“Not polished” is an understatement, though it was in fact Pence who sought to punish a 33-year-old Indiana woman who attempted to induce her own abortion.
When he wasn’t himself prevaricating, Pence dedicated much of his performance to deflecting Trump’s lies. Here’s what happened after Kaine pointed out that Trump didn’t know that Russia had invaded Crimea:
PENCE: Oh, that’s nonsense.
KAINE: He was on a TV show a couple months back, and he said, “I’ll guarantee you this, Russia’s not going into the Ukraine.” And he had to be reminded that they had gone into the Crimea two years before.
PENCE: He knew that.
And on Trump’s obviously high opinion of Vladimir Putin?
KAINE: Well, this is one where we can just kind of go to the tape on it. But Governor Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama.
PENCE: That is absolutely inaccurate.
KAINE: And — and — and I just think a guy who praises —
PENCE: He said he’s stronger — he’s been stronger on the world stage.
KAINE: No, he said leader. And if — and I’ll just say this, Governor —
PENCE: You just said better.
It’s not “absolutely inaccurate.” It’s mostly accurate — Trump may not have said the word “better,” but that’s the clear implication of his effusive praise.
Here’s where Kaine points out that Trump has said “the world will be safer if more nations have nuclear weapons,” offering that Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Korea should have access to nuclear arms.
“Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it,” Pence spat back.
In a March discussion with the New York Times, Trump said exactly that: “I think maybe it’s not so bad to have Japan — if Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us.”
He later doubled down in an interview with CNN:
TRUMP: At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself, we have —
ANDERSON COOPER: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?
TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.
Kaine’s strongest moments came when he merely repeated all the hot bile that Trump is known for spewing every time he un-purses his anus-mouth.
KAINE: Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He’s called women dogs, pigs, slobs, disgusting…. He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a P.O.W., and said he wasn’t a hero because he was captured. He said African Americans are living in hell, and he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
A short time later, Pence comes back with:
PENCE: I mean, to be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you’ve said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a “basket of deplorables.”
What a mess! Still, here comes the procession of reporters on Twitter, attempting to paint this as a good and reasonable contest.
The next debate between Trump and Clinton will be held on Sunday in St. Louis. It’s gonna be awful.