Judge: Stephen Llano
Winner: Tim Kaine
Tim Kaine won this debate in spite of himself. Kaine saw tonight as a moment to make the case against Donald Trump instead of the case for Hillary Clinton. He was on his way to losing this debate. Mike Pence had a great chance to show the vision and principle of the Trump ticket, but decided to engage Kaine in the framework of a courtroom: Who is more guilty of wrongdoing? Kaine was ready for this approach. Had Pence kept up his strategy in the first half, he would have won.
Kaine failed to recognize what this event was – a chance to create stasis points, or points of difference, between two visions, not two people. Kaine continuously shifted between Trump’s questionable public statements and bending Pence’s record on voting or policy support to point out contradiction. Pence lost his momentum in conveying his vision for the future and what policies they would enact to get there.
Pence was quite good at the start talking about vision and policy while Kaine attacked Trump mostly and tried to localize it to Indiana. Pence had a wonderful argumentative response to Kaine’s use of economic statistics to claim things were going well. Pence reduced the circumference to “Scranton,” making the audience think that perhaps the local story is not conveyed through large swaths of fact. An effective move. When debating a fact-as-argument person like Tim Kaine, it’s good to convey to the audience that facts don’t give the whole story of what’s happening on the ground in the daily lives of people. Facts are not arguments. Pence seemed to get this, and Kaine did not.
Kaine seemed prepared as a prosecutor going to trial to indict Donald Trump. Pence seemed more willing to talk about general ideas at first, but really failed to connect those ideas to the ways that Clinton/Kaine would think or operate. Kaine’s approach did not help him, and the first half of the debate went to Pence easily. He was smart to adopt the Hillary Clinton position from the first debate and simply wait to get his ideas out there about how he made judgements as governor or would as president.
On immigration, Pence had a good phrase with “illegal criminals” which Kaine did not attack as a dangerous term. Instead, he wanted to again attack Trump for his terrible public statements about Mexicans. Another opportunity lost for Kaine to contrast his vision with that of Pence. Pence missed a great chance to use the “basket of deplorables” line to craft the difference between a “negative campaign” – attacking voters, and a “frustrated businessman” who wants to act to solve problems.
Kaine fails to see that Presidential debates are about the audience being able to say, “He or she thinks like I do,” not the overly simple, “He or she has all the correct facts.”The most embarrassing moment for Tim Kaine is to talk about Trump’s tax avoidance during time he could have articulated a US human rights plan for Aleppo. He could have contrasted the thought process of setting up a humanitarian zone versus bombing that zone, which Pence suggested. This was missed clash in order to prove Donald Trump “bad.” A horrible and reprehensible strategy. Pence should have capitalized here and contrasted the “professional politician” approach to the “business” approach of Trump, taking the fight against our enemies there. Unfortunately, Pence was unclear as to who he saw as the enemies of the US in Syria.
Pence moved more into Kaine’s personal attack arena on the Clinton Foundation, which was a mistake. Pence should have seen that Kaine expected a legal framework for the debate. Pence should have kept his original perspective of talking about endorsements, ethos, and his plans. Kaine should have prepped more on issues and not Trump’s mistakes. The frame is about 90% of this thing, and Kaine chose a losing frame to start his approach. Pence made a better choice, but got suckered into debating at Kaine’s level.
The faith question near the end showed how little either candidate understood what the point of this event was – to generate rhetoric that helps audience members identify with their campaign’s way of thinking, judging, or doing. Pence did a little of this in his abortion remarks, but it was not well connected to his campaign’s vision. Kaine’s final question, “Why can’t you trust women?” should have been Senator Kaine’s whole strategy – toss Pence tough questions and point out that he avoided them when he had time to answer them.
It’s hard to say who won this debate. The first half was a clear Pence victory, but mostly because of Kaine’s poor preparation, his repetitive attacks on the tax records, and missing the boat on establishing policy. Pence failed to capitalize on the articulation of vision in the second half, while Kaine took a breath and articulated some good points on abortion and family values that Pence could not respond to well. Kaine destroyed his ability to look good in this debate, while I think Pence did better on that front. Kaine won in spite of himself only because Pence chose to debate “who is more terrible” rather than “who has the better vision for America.” Kaine turned in a terrible performance, one sure to be seen as a Pyrrhic victory in this election.