Pence stellar in VP debate

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  • Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine speaks during the 2016 US Vice President Debate on Tuesday.

  • Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks during the 2016 US Vice Presidential Debate on Tuesday.

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KYLE DAY, Opinion Columnist

As a political junkie, I’m all but obligated to pay attention to the things other Americans don’t. One of these is the vice presidential debate from last Tuesday night, to which I was looking forward with greater interest than the presidential debate last week.

My anticipation was not rewarded as I would have liked, for while the last debate devolved into a hot mess in which neither Trump nor Clinton walked away looking great, here Mike Pence emerged as the absurdly clear victor over Tim Kaine.

You should understand where this assessment comes from. I did like Governor Pence and appreciated much of what he has done and worked for both in the Congress and in his home state. But as a #NeverTrump conservative, my opinion of Pence has lower rather significantly since last summer. I still consider his agreement to serve as Trump’s vice president as something akin to a Faustian bargain.

Were I in Pence’s shoes, I likely would have taken the request to serve as vice president to be an invitation to participate in the radical transformation of the GOP, the severe damaging of the conservative movement and the weakening of America by means of leadership (if you can call it that) from an inexperienced, overconfident populist, and told Trump to go to hell instead.

Yet the facts of Tuesday night force me to applaud Pence, who was overwhelmingly respectful, deliberate and on-topic throughout the event. I was almost mesmerized by his ability to be precise and polished, even somewhat calculated, while still coming across as warm and personable. He likely changed no one’s opinion of Trump himself, but he arguably succeeded in rehabilitating his campaign and giving undecided voters a reason to not say “no” to Trump just yet.

Senator Kaine, however, ended up sounding like Trump. I would go so far as to call his debate performance “Trump-lite.” Pence did interrupt Kaine occasionally, but his interruption was at least dominated by making light jabs and single-sentence mockery some of Kaine’s more obviously absurd points.

In contrast, Kaine’s interruption was employed overwhelmingly to take over the conversation, to steamroll Pence during his speaking time and attempting to force Pence to directly address some of Trump’s more controversial commentary. At one point, Kaine even chided, “You can’t defend any of it!” with a rhythm, tone and ego like those of a twelve-year-old in his or her first middle school practice debate. More than most others, that point in the debate opened Kaine up to the charge of blending the worst tactics of Donald Trump and Saul Alinsky.

To his credit, getting Pence to directly address Trump’s comments was not a terrible strategy. If you can get your opponent to defend the indefensible, you’re doing well. But Kaine should have known that Pence, unlike Trump, has a near-superhuman ability to stay on message. Messaging for the GOP was even one of the great tasks to which Pence set himself during his time in Congress.

Essentially, Kaine targeted the Trump-Pence campaign where they were weakest, but did so in a way that practically catered to Pence’s greatest strengths. Kaine must have had little on which to fall back, because he kept up this strategy all throughout the night, no matter how often it failed. And in keeping it up, Kaine came across as a petulant, self-righteous, second-rate bully (in other words, Trump-lite).

As a voter discouraged by the whole course of this election cycle, I was hoping for a kind of second-chance with this debate, in which a real contest of ideas could take place between two ostensibly respectable representatives. Only one of the two men on that stage seemed genuinely interested in such an event.

Vice-presidential debates rarely have any substantial impact on the course of a US presidential election, so this debate is likely to fall into that history (although, almost nothing about this election has been common to recent history).

It certainly hasn’t shaken me from my #NeverTrump stance. It has, however, reassured me that, with Pence as an active, involved VP, a Trump White House may not quite be the apocalypse that many on all sides of our political spectrum have made it out to be.