Judge: Ray D’Cruz
Winner: Mike Pence
Republican Governor Mike Pence won tonight’s Vice Presidential Debate. His opponent, Senator Tim Kaine, was too negative and hectoring. He lost sight of the critical balance between positive and negative argumentation. While Governor Pence lacked detail throughout, and at times chose not to engage, he was calmer, clearer and more focussed on his key messages.
After similar canned opening responses on why each was qualified to be one step from the presidency, the debate turned to the economy. Governor Pence attacked the Obama administration’s performance as well as his opponent’s record as Virginia Governor. He contrasted this with his own record and the Trump-Pence promise to lower taxes and stimulate the economy. Senator Kaine did a poor job of defending the Obama legacy and also failed to defend his own record. These were important omissions on an issue of importance.
As the debate settled into questions about social security, law and order, immigration and Russia the pattern of this debate emerged. Governor Pence would address the question relevantly when attacking the Obama/Clinton/Kaine position. He was effective in casting America as weakened, and in need of change. He presented Donald Trump as a resilient businessman who could fix these problems. But he offered vague substantive positions, failing to inject any real policy detail in the debate (to counter Russia, the US needed to rebuild its military and project strength; to protect America, ban all Syrian refugees; to restore law and order, provide police with more resources and tools). He would substitute in place of detail endorsements of third parties (border security, police, veterans). At times when needing to defend Mr Trump, he chose not to engage with the argument (immigration policy, attacks on judges, personal tax returns).
Senator Kaine was more specific, but took a scatter gun approach, struggling to make his overall arguments stick. Question after question, he was in such a rush to get to Mr Trump’s outrageous statements about women, immigrants and veterans, and his failure to release his tax returns, that Senator Kaine failed to make his positive case for election stick. He simply didn’t defend the Obama/Clinton record on jobs, the economy, health care and foreign affairs. The links he made between those personal attacks and the question were often tenuous. His personal attacks needed to be more relevant and precise, and less repetitive. The biggest problem with this approach was that he wasted valuable time. With only two minutes in each speaking block, Senator Kaine at times had to defend his record, the Clinton/Obama record, attack his opponent’s policy and advance the Clinton/Kaine position. He simply wasted too much time too often attacking Mr Trump.
Senator Kaine’s manner was a problem. Debaters should interrupt and challenge, but they need to pick their moments. His constant interruptions bordered on hectoring. Governor Pence provided a calm and assured alternative.
In debate terms, both candidates were roughly even on matter (Governor Pence’s lack of policy detail cancelling out Senator Kaine’s unbalanced attack). But Governor Pence’s better manner and consistent focus on his overall message (that a weakened US needs change) saw him win this debate.