WASHINGTON – After going through a week reminiscent of Napoleon’s at Waterloo, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will likely claim that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s performance in Tuesday’s vice presidential debate gave a boost to their campaign.
That would be overstating it.
The debate probably changed few votes in the 2016 presidential election. The question is whether it will change any votes in the 2020 contest.
In this year’s race, the debate was something of a wash. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, came across like an over-caffeinated prosecutorial chipmunk — interrupting at every occasion. And at moments that weren’t occasions at all.
A gentle soul who’s uncomfortable in the attack-dog role that the Clinton campaign has assigned him, Kaine plainly overcompensated by piping up whenever Pence sought to evade debate moderator Elaine Quijano’s questions.
And because Pence spent the evening evading, Kaine spent the evening interrupting. Though at the start, the interruptions actually preceded the evasions, and often interrupted Quijano’s interjections as well.
Pence surely had the better podium manner (no great achievement), even if his response to all Kaine’s and Quijano’s questions about the true man of the hour — Trump — was to change the subject. Or, if pressed, to deny that Trump had said what, in fact, Trump had said.
When the 10-second clips are aired and re-aired, Kaine’s attacks on Trump and Pence’s non-responses will redound mildly to Clinton’s advantage.
But what does the debate tell us about the future of both parties? Pence was surely playing to the GOP’s religious right, with his anti-choice religiosity.
In that sense, he was trying to supplant Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as the Holy Rollers’ favorite son in the 2020 Republican primaries. (I’m assuming, of course, that Trump will not be running for his second term.)
Pence would bring some clear advantages to this contest. Unlike Cruz, Pence didn’t desert the party’s nominee (though Cruz came slinking back last week and finally endorsed Trump). Pence hasn’t waged a scorched-earth war against the Republican leadership. He doesn’t bear a disquieting resemblance to Bela Lugosi. For all these reasons, Pence will likely be the religious right’s candidate to take on President Hillary Clinton in 2020.
Should Pence become the nominee, however, the GOP standard-bearer would likely only widen the already yawning gap between Republicans and a majority of the American electorate. The affirmation of traditional right-wing positions that Pence delivered — against progressive taxation and all regulation, against a woman’s right to choose — would yield the party precious little support among millennials, who will be by far the largest age group in the 2020 electorate.
As for Kaine, it’s hard to think of any wing of the Democratic Party that would flock to him as a future standard bearer after last night’s gravitas-free performance. It’s increasingly unclear why Clinton chose him to be her running mate, because that apparently meant miscasting him as her surrogate Trump attacker.
In both his convention speech and his debate performance, Kaine has shown himself not up to the task. Some alternatives to Kaine — Labor Secretary Tom Perez comes to mind — would clearly have been better suited to the role. Perez would also have been better suited to help Clinton win more support from the one constituency that she most needs to do better: millennials. Many still don’t see Clinton as signifying any change or embodying the values that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders championed.
Kaine is a man of many virtues, and certainly could step into the presidency if he had to. But as a candidate and as a politician able to speak to younger voters and the Sanderistas — that is, the future of the Democratic Party — he’s been distinctly underwhelming.
Meanwhile, Quijano jumped around, one topic to another, almost as much as Kaine. Moderating is no easy job, but it must be said that Quijano shaped an uncommonly disjointed evening.
More important, both her questions on the economy — still the American public’s No. 1 concern — focused on the debt and balancing the budget. At a time when the disabling effects of economic inequality and the need for greater public investment in infrastructure are belatedly receiving the recognition they deserve — and when the candidates’ differences on these and other economic issues are vast — the size of the debt was hardly the topic on which the public needed to hear from the candidates.
Between Quijano’s topic-hopping, Kaine’s interruptions and Pence’s evasions, the debate flashed by as cacophonously and at times as incomprehensibly as a game of pinball.
Despite all the clamor, it was resoundingly clear by evening’s end that Kaine is not the Democrats’ future leader, and Pence, while he could be the GOP’s, is not likely to be America’s.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect.