Mike Pence falls short…of an impossible task

Tim Kaine and Mike Pence speak simultaneously while seated during the vice presidential debate on October 4, 2016.

Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence had the unenviable task of taking the debate stage tonight. It wasn’t his first debate—though certainly his grandest debate stage. What made his job difficult tonight was to face off against Sen. Tim Kaine after the Trump-Pence ticket had perhaps the worst week of the campaign season. The disastrous week had nothing to do with Mike Pence, his behaviors, his words, his history, his performance. It had everything to do with his running mate. Alas, Pence was in the spotlight tonight, and did little to change the Trump-dominated conversation.

What Pence needed to do

Mike Pence needed to go out on stage tonight and avoid mention of the man at the top of his ticket (he ultimately did in his first answer). Rather than channel his inner Donald Trump, Pence needed to channel the previous GOP vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan. He needed to be an “ideas guy” and take the debate stage to do something Trump has not, will not, and perhaps cannot: paint the GOP vision for the future of America.

Pence needed to talk about how he (read: his party) would improve the affordability of health care, create jobs, secure our borders (with a realistic plan), quell the unrest of international conflicts, reduce deficits, improve K-12 education, and make college more affordable. He didn’t need to come out and slam the Obama record; he needed to argue that his party could do better and that America deserves better. He needed to talk about his own family, his values, his religion, and how it will inform him in office. Most importantly, Pence needed to reach out to groups who have felt alienated by Donald Trump: women, Latinos, African Americans, millennials, and others, by speaking honestly and empathetically about the issues that matter to those voters.

In a 90-minute debate, with a talented opponent, and a moderator controlling the time and the flow, that is a tall order for any individual, and tonight, Mike Pence fell short.

What Tim Kaine needed to do

Tim Kaine had it easy. He was the more experienced individual on stage and while the woman at the top of his ticket has had some ups and many downs during her run for president, she had a very strong week preceding the VP debate. The ticket bounced back from hemorrhaging support to rebounding to a more comfortable position in the polls. Tonight, Tim Kaine’s candidacy required him to swear a political Hippocratic Oath: First do Hillary no harm.

He needed to introduce himself to America—even though frankly America won’t care. They’re voting for president and as long as you don’t give the country a reason to dislike the VP (see Palin, Sarah for the counterexample), you won’t matter much to the average voter. He at least needed to show himself ready to be president if a tragic event were to elevate him to the office.

But most of all he needed to talk about Donald Trump. He needed to continue the onslaught of the past 10 days in which the GOP ticket became vulnerable post-debate, and the standard bearer seemed to do everything in his power to make matters worse. He needed to remind America that they were not voting for Mike Pence—no matter how much they liked or disliked him. The GOP choice was Donald Trump and it will be his America if the country votes Republican.

On this point, Tim Kaine was broadly successful, despite an often nervous and clunky delivery of his message and an uncomfortable channeling of his inner-Trump via the aggressive interruption. He used Trump’s own words to highlight what that vision of America is. He didn’t need allegations and suggestive language. He just needed Trump. In the process he gave Pence an impossible choice: agree with Trump’s worst words or publicly disagree with your running mate—constantly asking “I don’t know how Gov. Pence can agree with Trump’s words.” In many ways, Kaine picked up where Clinton left off, using the debate stage to diminish Donald Trump and highlight his temperament as unfit. Pence may well have hid behind a Trump Foundation-provided cardboard cutout of the Donald because Kaine wasn’t debating the Governor of Indiana; he was debating the billionaire from New York.

Don’t blame Mike Pence

Other than agreeing to join the Trump ticket, the outcome of tonight’s debate was not Pence’s fault. He had some strong moments. Pence’s performance was more calm, stable, and direct than Trump’s performance last week. Pence was focused on a set of messages he knew he needed to convey, and delivered them in presidential tone. When he discussed the ongoing conflict in Iraq and the fallout from the failure to negotiate a status of forces agreement, he showed a grasp of policy far beyond what we’ve seen on the campaign trail. He even landed some effective attacks on Clinton slamming her as the “architect of Obama’s foreign policy” and then listing the world’s hotspots.

Yet tonight wasn’t about Hillary Clinton or Tim Kaine or even Mike Pence. Tonight was about Donald Trump, as much of this election has become, and there was little Mike Pence could do about it.

Critics may say a more talented debater, experienced politician, or savvy orator could have turned the tables. They could not. Pence was handed a shot glass and asked to bail out a sinking ship.

Why tonight doesn’t matter

A vice presidential debate rarely matters. As mentioned above, people only care about running mates when they are a liability. When a would-be VP is such a disaster or seems so unfit or brings scandal to the ticket, Americans may take note. Even losing a vice presidential debate—even losing it badly—doesn’t necessarily spell doom: it didn’t matter when Dan Quayle was embarrassed by Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.

Mike Pence, regardless of what you think of him or his politics or even his record, is not that liability. Few people will look at the Republican ticket and say “I want to vote for Donald Trump, but I can’t because of this Pence guy.” No one tuned into this debate a committed Trump voter and left it undecided. Did Pence convince people to back the GOP ticket? Perhaps, but his performance was likely not stellar enough to do so, and frankly, that isn’t his job; it’s Trump’s.

Why tonight’s debate might matter

Tonight’s debate continued the narrative that has dominated the last week of news cycles. Trump has faced numerous challenges this week and because Trump—and his weaknesses—played such a dominant role tonight, that narrative will not change. It does not put the GOP ticket in a worse place, but tonight’s debate will do little to change the conversation. That is devastating for the Republican ticket as continued questions over taxes, comments about the female physique, and rhetoric about PTSD in veterans will continued at least until Sunday night’s debate. That is a challenge for the ticket.

What’s more, Kaine spent much of the debate speaking to key demographic groups: women, young people, communities of color, college educated white voters, and even working class voters. He was not trying to convince people to choose between Clinton and Trump; Kaine was pushing people to vote, rather than stay home. That effort is critical, particularly as early voting has opened in some states and will expand significantly over the next week. Tim Kaine’s debate performance will not deal a victory for Clinton. The VP debate essentially froze the race in place—at least for the time being—and after the week that was, that’s great news for Team Clinton.