The vice presidential debate on Tuesday evening was a reversal of roles. Tim Kaine, the Democratic contender, was tough and aggressive, sometimes even nasty. That’s the role Donald Trump is expected to play. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, came across as reasonable and experienced. That’s supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s role.
Who won? Close call. Kaine had the stronger points, particularly in his relentless attacks on Trump. But Pence may have elicited more sympathy from voters. Pence was a gentleman. Give the victory to Kaine on points. But public sympathy probably favoured Pence.
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Will the vice presidential debate make any difference to the election? Probably not. Americans don’t vote for a vice president. You can prove it with two words – Dan Quayle. Back in 1988, voters thought Quayle was not qualified for the job. But he won anyway because people were not voting for Quayle. They were voting for the candidate at the top of the ticket, George HW Bush.
Kaine came to the debate loaded for bear. The bear he was aiming at was Trump. One of Kaine’s best moments came when he itemised Donald Trump’s insults against women, immigrants, African-Americans, Mexicans, the military – just about everybody.
Kaine succeeded in keeping the focus on Trump as the central issue in the campaign. Kaine was relentless in drilling home the point that Trump has not released his tax returns. Which, Kaine charged, means that Trump does not support teachers and veterans who depend on tax money. It’s a powerful charge.
Pence defended himself well and refused to allow Kaine to drive a wedge between himself and Donald Trump. Except on one point: Pence was more critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin than Trump has ever been. At one point, Pence suggested that as president, Trump would be willing to use military force against the Syrian regime. That was a risky position to take.
A couple of years ago, when the Syrian government was revealed to be using chemical weapons, President Obama proposed military strikes in retaliation. The American public was outraged, and Congress signalled that it would not support the use of force. Americans do not want to send US troops to fight another Middle East war.
Pence was not nearly as effective as Kaine on offence. He mentioned Hillary Clinton’s failure to release thousands of emails just once, in passing. His criticism of the nuclear deal with Iran sounded alarmist, suggesting that Iran is now certain to acquire nuclear weapons. And Pence did not seem to have a response when he was asked what a Trump Administration would do to stop homegrown terrorism. Stopping illegal immigration would not mean much.
The bottom line is that if Americans were choosing between Kaine and Pence, Pence would have a good chance of winning. He was more sympathetic, and as a Republican, he has the “change” issue on his side. But voting for Trump is far more difficult for Americans. Pence came across as a man of honour and decency. Those are qualities few US voters associate with Trump.