Tonight's VP debate will be the most normal thing in this crazy election
Tonight, the two major-party nominees for vice president will meet at Longwood University in sleepy Farmville, Virginia, for their one moment on the national stage together. The vice presidential debate between Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) might give voters a real opportunity to focus on issues that matter most to them — and perhaps a brief moment of normality in an otherwise bizarre and unpredictable election.
Since the first presidential debate last week, the media has focused entirely on character issues generated by both campaigns. Allegations that Donald Trump bullied a beauty-pageant winner led the post-debate debate, a topic that Trump oddly seemed eager to perpetuate. The New York Times published a Trump tax return from 1995 showing a $916 million loss that could have (quite legally) allowed Trump to stretch those losses for another two decades. Meanwhile, the Trump family foundation got served a cease-and-desist order from the New York attorney general.
Trump's campaign has attacked back, even more personally at times. Both Trump and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani suggested that Hillary Clinton has been less than faithful to her husband. Team Trump seized on a comment about millennials made by Clinton in a private fundraiser to argue that she had attacked them as "basement dwellers."
By contrast, tonight's debate between Kaine — a sitting senator, former governor, and ex-head of the DNC — and Pence — a sitting governor and former congressman — might just be the most normal political event in recent memory.
Pence and Kaine will each be trying to sell the candidate at the top of their ticket, and also trying to sell themselves. Kaine likely has the easier task, but not by much. To help boost Clinton, Kaine will have to make a strong argument that cuts across her weaknesses on honesty and trustworthiness. Personal testimony will be part of that, but an emphasis on policy consistency would help, too. The last thing Kaine wants is to get into a shouting match with Pence over personal qualities; Pence will no doubt be ready for it, and has much more skill in delivering those attacks than Trump demonstrated in his first debate.
On policy, Kaine has to find a way to bring his party's progressive wing and the moderate wing together. He'll want to emphasize the prosperity of the Bill Clinton era and suggest that Hillary Clinton's policies will help bring those good times back, while highlighting her focus on income inequality. Tax policies and regulatory changes will support those arguments, and would eclipse the personal issues that have dogged her campaign. Kaine can also emphasize his ability to coordinate with Congress for bipartisan consensus, while attacking Trump for his superficial approach to policy.
Pence has a tougher task: making voters comfortable enough to cast a vote for Trump, a job that got even tougher over the past week. The Indiana governor will have to demonstrate that he and Trump have policy depth on a wide range of issues. Pence, a fiscal conservative in Congress and as governor of Indiana, can certainly delve into tax and regulatory policies in depth, and has at least an equal standing with Kaine on foreign policy. If Pence can establish his own credentials on both domestic and foreign-policy issues that really matter to voters, he can go a long way toward easing concerns about Trump's temperament.
Pence also needs to follow up on Trump's most effective argument in the first debate, one which he inexplicably dropped in the middle of a scrum over temperament issues. Both Clinton and Kaine have been around Washington in one capacity or another for a long time, which makes them vulnerable on why their policy goals haven't been achieved. Trump reminded the audience more than once that Clinton had been around for "30 years" without truly achieving much of her agenda; Pence needs to up the ante on that and get specific. Populist fervor against a business-as-usual establishment rocked both parties in their primaries. If Pence can precisely and specifically pin that tail on the Clinton-Kaine donkey in this debate, it could help reset the narrative for the election.
Even if it does, however, it might not do so for long. The debate stage shifts back to the presidential nominees on Sunday, and the temptation for both candidates to relentlessly troll the other might be impossible to resist, especially for Clinton, since she succeeded in derailing Trump for a few days the last time. If tonight's debate turns into an in-depth examination of substance, voters had better enjoy it while it lasts.