This is guest post by William Crotty, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Chair in Public Life and Emeritus Professor of Political Science; Northeastern University, Boston.
The 2016 presidential race has been a nasty and bitter contest dominated by the two major party nominees. The vice-presidential race between two nationally unknown figures was considered inconsequential with no likely impact on the vote. The contestants were Mike Pence, a former congressman and governor of Indiana, a by-the-book, small government, anti-regulation, no tax conservative from a conservative state. Pence, an evangelical, claims Christianity dominated his life, more important than family or party, in that order.Hillary Clinton chose Tim Kaine, a former governor of Virginia and presently a U.S. Senator. Kaine’s state was considered to be in play in the election. Ideologically Kaine was a centrist/conservative. He appeared to be an amiable candidate, who had been a finalist for the vice presidential nomination in 2008 before Barack Obama close Joe Biden. Clearly he appeared attractive to major candidates while at the same time remaining obscure to the voting public. Kaine was an ardent and observant Catholic. Both candidates emphasized their faith.
In the Bill Clinton conception of governor (he pioneered the tactic) Kaine announced he was pro-life but emphasized that as governor he had executed a man sentenced by the courts, his point being that whatever his own beliefs he followed the law. He was anti-abortion and in the Senate in the run up to the debate had voted against a provision that would make Medicare more readily available to more people (the “public option”). He did not fit the profile of a Democratic party candidate but he was experienced and had done well in his home state.
The two-hour debate took place on October 4th. Both candidates were well prepared, a contrast with Trump in particular and his lack of preparation for debates. They later were held out (especially Pence) as a model Trump should follow in the two presidential debates to come. Kaine was unusually aggressive in presenting the Democratic party’s positions on issues and insisting that Pence present Trump’s views and/or defend his party nominee’s stands, a difficult position for Pence to be in. Both candidates interrupted the other although Kaine did it far more regularly than Pence. His comments were along the line of he’s not answering the question, he changed the subject, what he says is not true, that’s not accurate, and so on.
While Kaine seemed revved up, Pence’s responses were slow and measured and his overall approach cool and, to an extent, detached. His approach was, as Kaine repeatedly pointed out, to not answer questions, to deflect and change the subject, to repeatedly declare Kaine’s charges as “false,” “false,” “false” and to turn attention to attacks on Hillary Clinton whenever possible. The difference and what appeared to impress the television commentators following the debate was that he (again) did it in a cooler, unemotional, and restrained manner. This was opposed to Kaine’s seventy-two interruptions while Pence was speaking (no such figure is available as to the times Pence interrupted Kaine but it was considerably less).
After the debate, the instant television analysis was that Pence had done well and had won the debate. Further, a number commenting on his gentlemanly manner of response (as contrast with Kaine’s intensity) immediately pronounced him the frontrunner for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination. The lesson would seem to be that a politician who looks unruffled on television while effectively stonewalling an opponent, constantly denying what had taken place in the campaign or in this case what Trump said or did and lying (“not true”, “false,”) qualifies as the perfect future presidential candidate. His skills would be those required in a president and in line with those who have held the office. This perspective by much of the nation’s newsmakers begins to suggest why voters think the system is corrupt and rigged and why change is needed.
The saving grace (short-term) in all of this is that outside of the two parties’ core supporters, few voters are likely to take the v.p. debate seriously or to read or listen to what the observers have to say. The debate was even less likely to change any votes.
In truth, not all media commentators accepted what was the early responses of the television analysts. Frank Bruni, a New York Times reporter, writing on the paper’s op-ed page, had a different take. Bruni wrote:
It’s hard to think of a vice-presidential candidate in modern history who has gone so far against his supposed nature and his proclaimed values in the service of his running mate. I guess that’s fitting, because it’s hard to think of a presidential candidate in modern history who has behaved in a fashion as heedless, vulgar and vicious as Trump has. Any politician sharing the ticket with him would be in for a soul-lacerating ride.
Pence … isn’t just any politician. He’s one who wears his religiousness with particular pride, and is fond of introducing himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
In 1991, after losing a race for the United States Congress in which he harshly attacked his opponent, he published an essay, “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” in which he invoked Jesus and mentioned sin as he swore off such ugliness in the future.
Never has he [Pence] taken Trump to task or taken a stand for “basic human decency.” He seems to have reversed the order of those three adjectives in his identity. “Republican now comes first and “Christian” last.
Bruni’s reaction was in the minority although as the post-debate week evaluations went on as to the candidates’ performance they became more balanced and less adulatory of Pence. Trump however did congratulate himself for choosing Pence as his running mate
Other than that, attention returned to the main arena and the upcoming second presidential debate. Republicans in the Congress and at the state level, never enthusiastic about Trump and fearful of his effect on their races, indicated that another disastrous performance as in the first presidential debate and they would be cutting ties with their party’s nominee
The debates as a whole were proving to be important to critical, even potentially decisive, to the election and its outcome.