Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Indiana Governor Mike Pence could have focused on each other, as though they were candidates running for the same office, which, in fact, they are. They could have focused on their respective political parties, which bind them to other candidates and to the ideas each party propounds. Or they could have focused on the presidential nominees.
Well, the words “Democrat” and “Republican” were uttered a grand total of one time last night, by the moderator in the course of posing a question. At the end of the debate Kaine and Pence each delivered personal and political statements on abortion, respecting each other’s views while differing sharply in what was the high point of the debate; they also gave autobiographical introductions. Mostly, however, the focus was on Clinton and Trump. No surprise.
Kaine was overeager, too hot for television, and recited canned lines that Pence justly derided. But Kaine prosecuted his ticket’s case consistently, and economically defended Clinton (pointing out, for example, that she apologized for “deplorables”). The drama last night, such as it was, revolved around how Pence could defend Trump’s indefensible comments.
Kaine took control of the debate as he pressed Pence repeatedly: do you too not care much if other countries obtain nuclear weapons? Do you also believe that women who get abortions should be punished? (That one Trump had retracted.) Do you agree on huge tax cuts for billionaires? Is Vladimir Putin a better leader than Obama? Do you agree with deriding our military leaders and Gold Star parents. Is NATO obsolete and the Baltics not worth defending with American forces and funds if Russia invades them?
Pence resorted to several techniques to fend off Kaine’s charges. My favorite was his head shake, sometimes perturbed, sometimes mournful, always dismissive. When an on-camera debater shakes his head “no” while his opponent speaks, he preserves wiggle room because it can be interpreted by viewers as an “I can’t believe he’s doing this” dismissal as well as a “That’s factually incorrect” assertion (which Pence did say at times). Thus, even when Kaine quoted Trump accurately, Pence could still object in the venerable “There you go again” mode. And yes, Pence quoted Reagan saying that, too. The downside of the tactic, for the Republicans, is that Pence’s non-verbal refutations yielded more video and canvassing material for the Democrats.
That Pence could fight Kaine to better than a draw on the topic of stuff Trump has said worked thanks to the excessive constraints of the format. There was no truth-checking apart from the biased contentions of the candidates, neither time nor incentive for reasoned arguments (talking points only, please, with the notable exception of the abortion discussion), and no contextualizing of statements to show public opinion distribution or policy history on any of the many issues raised. All of this can be done technologically in unobtrusive and neutral ways that we as digital denizens can process while watching and listening. But the two-pols-and-a-moderator format strips away everything on which we can make judgements except televisual style, aka “theater criticism.” Which is a valid criterion, but not the only one.
PENCE: Yeah, and so — but first, you know, let's make sure we're putting the safety and security of the American people first instead of Hillary Clinton expanding the Syrian refugee program…
KAINE: Or instead of you violating the Constitution by blocking people based on their national origin rather than whether they're dangerous.
PENCE: That's not — that's absolutely false.
KAINE: That's what the Seventh Circuit decided just — here's the difference, Elaine.
PENCE: The Seventh Circuit…
KAINE: We have different views on — on refugee issues and on immigration. Hillary and I want to do enforcement based on, are people dangerous? These guys say all Mexicans are bad.
PENCE: That's absolutely false.
Now, the first time Pence said “That’s absolutely false” here, he misstated the truth. The day before the debate an all-conservative panel of appellate judges (Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner, and Diane Sykes) issued a court ruling against Pence for trying to bar Syrian refugees from Indiana. The trio unanimously agreed with the lower court finding that the Indiana Governor inappropriately discriminated by nationality when he interfered with the distribution of federal resettlement funds in his state to Syrian refugees. As Nina Totenberg put it, “The panel rejected Pence's argument that terrorists are posing as Syrian refugees to gain entry into the U.S., calling it a ‘nightmare speculation’ based on no evidence. Indeed, the court said, the state presented no evidence that any Syrian refugee had been involved in a terrorist act in the U.S.”
Kaine should have made more of this wedge: three GOP stalwarts (one is on Trump’s list of potential replacements for Scalia) tying the moderate-sounding Pence to Trump’s signature divisive and unconstitutional initiative. It’s not just the presidential nominee who wants to bar with an illegally broad brush, it’s the vice-presidential nominee, too. Whither the GOP? And what have Americans said on this question in polls?
However, the second time Pence said “That’s absolutely false,” he was correct. Even in his famous anti-Mexican paragraph during his announcement address Trump conceded that some good Mexicans existed.
These party, policy, and record details belong on the debate screen. They do not require extra research or unusual graphics, just the will to junk a stultifying template for political argumentation.
On to a better format this coming Sunday night, in which citizens get to pose (and others got to vote on!) questions, and candidates have to answer in one way or another right before their and our eyes.