WASHINGTON -- Tim Kaine’s strategy in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate was to go after Donald Trump frontally, over and over again, and to challenge Mike Pence to defend his running mate. Pence’s strategy was to evade defending Trump, shake his head, pretend Trump hadn’t said the things that Trump said – and then move on to attacks against Hillary Clinton.
Kaine was feisty, a lawyer eager to prosecute his case. Pence was polished, his deep voice recalling his talk show host past. Kaine was eager to challenge and sometimes interrupt Pence. Pence wanted certain issues – Trump’s failure to release his income tax returns, for example – to go away. Kaine seemed fully comfortable turning back Pence’s attacks on Clinton. Pence loyally defended Trump where he could, but he acted as if he were reluctant to walk away from the debate owning all of Trump’s record.
Right from the start, Kaine placed Trump at the center of the debate. When the moderator Elaine Quijano opened by asking Kaine and Pence whether they were ready to be president, Kaine closed his answer by noting that his Marine son was deployed abroad and that he and his wife, Anne, trusted Clinton as his commander in chief. “The thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief,” he added, “scares us to death.”
Kaine’s strategy contained echoes of Vice President Al Gore’s approach to his 1996 debate with Jack Kemp, Republican nominee Bob Dole’s running mate.
Knowing of Kemp’s pride in his progressive position on race and civil rights, Gore said he wanted to “congratulate” Kemp for being “a lonely voice in the Republican Party over the years on this question.” He sought to separate Kemp from Dole and the Republican Party, and Kemp took the bait. Rather than defend his running mate and the GOP, Kemp defended himself and offered an excellent sermon on tolerance. In the process, he underscored Gore’s attack line.
Time and again, Kaine tried to drive a wedge between Pence and Trump, saying at one point he could not “imagine” that Pence would defend Trump’s “selfish, me-first” approach, and at another that he could not “believe” that Pence would defend an “insult-driven campaign.”
Pence stayed loyal, saying he was perfectly willing to defend Trump, but he ducked almost all of Kaine’s specifics. Kaine called attention to the strategy after his repeated efforts failed to draw a response: “He is asking everyone to vote for someone he will not defend.”
Pence was not always truthful in his attacks on Clinton, but he was smooth and surely left many Republicans wishing that he, not Trump, was their nominee. Kaine saw his task as making Trump the central issue of the night, and he largely succeeded. It was a messy brawl, not an inspiring exchange of views, except for a surprisingly thoughtful back-and-forth on abortion near the end. An encounter that no doubt frustrated many viewers did little to change the trajectory of the contest.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.