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VP Debate: Pence Wins on Style; Kaine on Substance

Democratic nominee Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican nominee Gov. Mike Pence each one the first vice presidential nominee debate of 2016 in different ways.

We are unlikely to see another William Henry Harrison, the old Indian fighter who was elected on the strength of his defeat of Tecumseh’s Rebellion and served for 30 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes before passing the office to his VP, John Tyler.

We hope never to see another John F. Kennedy, struck down by an assassin with his agenda mostly unfinished, an agenda that fared well with his VP, the legislative bone crusher Lyndon B. Johnson.

However, the reality is that the winner of the Trump-Clinton smackdown will be either the oldest (Trump) or the second oldest (Clinton) POTUS in history. Trump and Clinton are also the most unpopular pair ever to face off for the office, and each has enemies that are completely irrational.

Trump has taken entertainment value to a whole new level in politics this year, so the VP debate was bound to suffer by comparison. Historically, the highest rated VP debate was between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden; the lowest pitted Al Gore against Jack Kemp. Even though none of those four candidates became POTUS, they all cut a swath through the history of their times.

Playing Tonto to Trump’s and Clinton’s Long Ranger are Indiana Governor Mike Pence for Trump and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine for Clinton. Both have solid resumes but neither is likely to overshadow the top of the ticket.

Pence was selected to be a moderating influence on Trump, to make mainstream Republicans comfortable. He earned a B.A. in history from Hanover College and a law degree from Indiana University at Indianapolis. Pence is indeed moderate in style, but his substance is vintage Tea Party.

Pence was a climate change denier until September 27, 2016, when he appeared to change his tune without explanation. He favors a flat tax and favors having a debate about a return to the gold standard. He opposed President Obama’s economic stimulus package even after it was watered down and he opposed the bail-out of the U.S. auto industry.

Pence carried 90 bills during his 12 years in Congress without passing one.

As Governor of Indiana, Pence got national notice for signing a bill to encourage discrimination against gay people under the guise of religious freedom, and for quickly backing down as businesses began to cancel projects in Indiana (proving himself more sensible than Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina). Pence has also been on the losing end of court battles over his efforts to prevent Syrian refugees from settling in Indiana.

Kaine earned a B.A. in economics, summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri and a law degree from Harvard. He has served on the Richmond, Virginia city council and as mayor. He served as Lt. Governor of Virginia from 2001 to 2005, when he became Governor. He was Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011 and was elected to the Senate in 2012.

Kaine’s early legal career was dedicated to litigating open housing issues. His election as mayor was a bit of a shock, since the mayor is selected by the majority-black city council and there had not been a white mayor in over a decade.

Kaine has had a couple of “scandals.” He spent $6,000 in public funds to charter busses for the anti-gun violence Million Mom March. After an outcry, he reimbursed the city from private donations. He was attacked in his run for governor for 10 years of free work as court appointed lawyer for a death row inmate.

Kaine and Pence—unlike Trump (Presbyterian) and Clinton (Methodist)—are both overtly guided by their religious faith. Both were raised Roman Catholics, but Pence converted to the sort of evangelical Protestantism that aspires to rule by Christian mullahs. Pence brings his religion into policy full force; Kaine takes the John Kennedy view that he is not running for Pope.

Elected to the Senate after the legislative lockdown the Republicans imposed to keep President Obama from doing anything, Kaine would not have much chance to pass legislation. His work has focused on working with Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio to found the Career and Technical Education Caucus. In 2014, he and Portman sponsored legislation to appropriate $500 million to high schools for CTE programs.

Kaine spent time as a missionary in Honduras, where he became fluent in Spanish. He’s the rare non-native speaker in the same league as Jeb Bush, who speaks clear and excellent Spanish with a Mexican colloquial flavor.

The moderator was Elaine Quijano of CBS. Trump promised to live tweet the event, but the talking heads were unanimously of the opinion he would only do it with a “minder.” The GOP website put up an evaluation that Pence won decisively—an hour before the debate started. It was taken down before Quijano kicked off the festivities.

With an admonition that the audience should remain silent—an admonition that was futile during the Clinton-Trump throwdown—Quijano got started with the ultimate VP question. What did each candidate believe prepared them to leap into the breach if something happened to their POTUS?

Both candidates dove into obviously prepared remarks. Kaine cited his experience as a missionary, civil rights lawyer, mayor, governor and senator.

Pence said he was prepared by growing up in a small town and leading “a state that works.”

Quijano fired one public opinion question at each side.

To Kaine: The voters don’t trust Hillary Clinton. Why do you? Because she has always had a focus on helping families and kids whether in or out of office.

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To Pence: The voters think Trump is risky. Why don’t you? Because Trump has built a business.

Pence continually emphasized more taxes and more regulations under Clinton/Kaine, which is probably correct.

Kaine kept emphasizing that he could not believe how Pence, a sane man, could defend Trump’s crazy remarks. How Pence defended Trump was to deny he said things he is on tape saying.

Both campaigns have promised to protect Social Security. Quijano asked how. Kaine said they would raise the cap on the payroll tax; Pence did not answer.

Pence kept pointing out that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents union has endorsed Trump. I could not understand why Kaine did not point out the huge membership increase in store for that union if Trump undertakes mass deportations.

Pence denied all the wonderful things Trump has said about Vladimir Putin and added his own characterization of Putin as “the small and bullying leader of Russia.”

Kaine, asked what went wrong with the Russian reset, had a one-word answer: “Putin.”

On the question of what to do about North Korea getting an ICBM to deliver a nuke to the U.S., Kaine admitted it would be necessary to consider a preemptive strike.

To the same question, Pence would spend more money on the U.S. military and “demilitarize the Korean Peninsula” which he called “plain and simple.” Note that Trump has said that South Korea should consider getting nuclear weapons.

There were many instances besides Korea where Pence was giving Pence’s opinion rather than Trump’s. Another was Pence’s opinion of Vladimir Putin, which is far away from Trump’s.

Quijano saved religion for the end, asking both men to give an example of when their faith collided with public policy and how they dealt with it.

Kaine talked about his long standing opposition to the death penalty and how hard it was to sign a death warrant. But he had to, he felt, unless he intended to establish a religion—his own—in violation of the First Amendment.

Pence talked about abortion and took the opposite tack, that it was his duty to wield public authority in the way his faith would.

In her final question, Quijano wanted to know what each candidate would do to bring the country together after this nasty campaign?

Kaine pointed out numerous instances when both he and Clinton have worked in a bipartisan manner.

Pence essentially said that the problem would be solved if the Democrats would give up on all their issues.

Kaine won on substance but Pence won on style. Both candidates talked over the other, but Kaine did much more of it. Kaine sounded like he prepared for the debate at Starbuck’s.

If facts mattered, Pence would get savaged in the media for the next week with one tape after another juxtaposed with his remarks claiming the tape did not exist. These were comparatively unknown VP candidates and odds are that Pence’s fact-challenged performance will not be effectively debunked.

On the other hand, debunking Pence would involve Trump on tape, and replaying Trump might get past editors.

Pence will probably be called the winner at first. Whether that sticks will depend on whether there is substantial fact checking. Pence did more good for himself than for Trump and he probably anointed himself spokesman for movement conservatives.

If that is correct, the big loser of the evening was Ted Cruz—and anybody else who wants to contest the 2020 election with Pence. Should Trump get elected, his famously vindictive side will make it unlikely that Pence will get the kind of policy portfolio that will line him up as the next candidate. Pence, not ignorant of this, seems to be betting his running mate is going down.

Kaine did no serious harm to Clinton or to himself, and he did stay much closer to Clinton than Pence stayed to Trump. Kaine did miss an opportunity to put the Trump-Pence ticket away. Unless there is substantial fact checking over the next couple of days, in which case Kaine’s performance will turn to solid gold.