Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate was more of a proxy war between this year’s presidential candidates than a contest about capabilities of the two men on stage. In that sense, it was an unfair fight: Gov. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, had to defend the indefensible Donald Trump. To a large extent, he did so by conjuring a candidate who does not exist — a Reaganesque supporter of a muscular foreign policy, small government and traditional Christian values. It was as if he was defending the running mate he wished he had.
To the extent that Pence succeeded Tuesday evening, it was in landing blows on Hillary Clinton while declining to defend Trump’s proposals and record. When Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, listed a variety of Trump’s offenses — from stoking the racist “birther” movement to attacking Sen. John McCain’s war record to calling women disgusting names — Pence responded by claiming Clinton and Kaine have run an insult-rich campaign.
Similarly, when challenged to defend Trump’s plans for the budget and entitlement programs, Pence insisted the Democrats would create “a mountain range of debt,” though Trump’s tax-cutting plan would, in fact, balloon the debt much more. Pence played down Trump’s promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and his well-documented skepticism of NATO. He frequently insisted that Trump would be “strong” where President Barack Obama and Clinton are “weak,” attacking them for “Russian aggression” under their watch, but he dodged when Kaine pointed out that Trump has cozied up to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Pence’s all-purpose defense of Trump was that “Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician.” He deployed this line when attempting to explain why Trump has failed to release his tax returns. But the fact that Trump lacks a public record to scrutinize makes it only more important that he release his tax returns, so the public can see how he conducted the professional life on which he bases his campaign.
This is not to say Kaine shined. His frequent interruptions made his points about Trump, which were mostly reasonable, seem less so. Pence effectively bore in on areas of the world that have becomes less stable during the past eight years. Both candidates, meanwhile, failed to respond to a range of substantive questions from moderator Elaine Quijano. Neither ticket, for example, has a plan to take on the nation’s long-term budget imbalances. Both candidates said that, unlike Obama, they favor creating a safe zone in Syria, but, when pressed, neither explained how or by whom that zone would be protected. A break from the dodging and insulting came when they thoughtfully debated abortion, with both men fervently defending their very different points of view.
Repeatedly over the course of Tuesday’s debate, Kaine exclaimed that he could not believe Pence could defend Trump’s behavior and record. In a way, Kaine was right — a polished Pence largely did not.