If there’s anyone who appreciated Mike Pence’s performance last night, it had to be Colorado’s own Cory Gardner.
It was about 15 minutes into the debate that I wrote a note to myself that Pence is pulling a Cory. It was about 15 minutes later that I underlined it. At some point, I’m pretty sure I added an exclamation point or maybe even two. And now you know how punditry gets done.
To pull a Cory, when you’re presented with something that is obviously but inconveniently true, you either straight-facedly deny that it’s true or, if pressed, deny that the questioner has the facts right or, if pressed harder, simply answer a different question.
It’s how Cory got to be Sen. Cory Gardner. It was brilliant, in its way, so long as truthfulness isn’t a big issue for you.
But, to be fair, it was a slightly tougher haul for Pence, who didn’t have to defend himself (I mean, at this point, what does it matter which disturbingly anti-gay bills Pence has signed as governor of Indiana?) but did have to defend his indefensible running mate and the long list of Trump’s many absurdities and petty insults and cases of crowd-pleasing bigotry and cases of full-on misogyny. And that’s before we even get to taxes.
Pence did his best. He calmly parried as Tim Kaine consistently interrupted. And he handled much of what Trump had said by shaking his head at the accusation, smiling incredulously and saying, in effect, in his best talk-radio voice, you’d have to think Trump was an idiot to believe he’d say things like that.
But, of course, it’s all provable. And Trump is not an idiot. He’s a demagogue, which is far worse. No one paying any attention at all doubted that Trump had said all those things – about abortion, about Miss Piggy, about nukes, about Putin – but if there were doubts, the Clinton campaign has already put out a pretty devastating fact-checking video matching every Pence denial with the relevant Trump utterance.
My favorite Pence move came when Kaine said that Trump was running an insult-driven campaign. “Ours is an insult-driven campaign?” Pence said, as if shocked by the notion. “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.”
Clinton did make a mistake – never insult the voters – but she also apologized. Meanwhile, Trump did say all the things that Kaine had charged him with saying. And if you’re wondering how one candidate can get away with so much, check The New York Times’s Upshot feature, which keeps a running list of people, places and things that Trump has insulted. Last I checked, it was 273.
And I wonder if The Times list included Trump’s email sent during the debate, which, in Trump’s trademark gratuitous style, said that “Kaine looks like an evil crook out of the Batman movies.”
The conventional wisdom is that Pence won the debate – and if you use the turn-off-the-volume test, it wasn’t close – but it doesn’t really matter. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, it’s a vice-presidential debate, and they never matter. Not even Dan Quayle’s I-knew-Jack-Kennedy debate mattered. Second, Pence may have helped himself in 2020, but he didn’t do much for Trump in 2016. I mean, Pence called Putin “small and bullying,” and said the United States should meet Russian provocations with strength. Trump must have fallen out of his chair when he heard that about his favorite bare-chested dictator.
Further, Pence invented foreign policy for Syria that Trump had never mentioned before. Some were saying on Twitter – where you can trust everything you read – that Trump was upset that Pence spent less time defending Trump than he did in inventing a whole new running mate. The funniest thought is that Pence showed Trump how to attack Hillary Clinton on policy, on the foundation, on corruption. Does anyone – I mean, anyone – really think that Trump was taking notes on Pence’s debate style?
If Pence contributed anything, it was, as some commentators noted, a pathway to a post-Trump GOP, in which the most obvious way forward is to pretend that the Trump interlude never actually happened. I’m sure Gardner would be glad to help lead the way there. We’re only about five weeks away from Gardner denying that he ever supported Trump. And it may take a little longer, but Pence will soon be saying that he saw his role as someone to counter Trump on the off chance that the country would be crazy enough to elect him.
Kaine obviously had a terrible debate. He was supposed to be the attack dog, but that’s not his strength, and talking over your opponent isn’t the way to make the case. Just ask Trump, who, you may recall, constantly interrupted Clinton in their debate.
Actually, you don’t have to ask Trump. All you had to do was be one of Trump’s millions of Twitter followers. Here’s what he actually tweeted the morning after the debate:
“The constant interruptions last night by Tim Kaine should not have been allowed. Mike Pence won big!”
Maybe he did. And yet, Trump still lost.
Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey