An hour and a half before the vice-presidential debate began on Tuesday night, the Republican Party mistakenly announced on its website that Mike Pence had wiped the floor with Tim Kaine, proving beyond a doubt the GOP ticket's superiority and paving the way toward a glorious victory in November. Despite the fact that the suspense had been ruined, Pence and Kaine went ahead with their debate anyway, thrilling Americans with an extended session of bickering, interruptions, insincere smiles, and shaking heads.
When it was over, one thing was clearer than ever: No issue in this campaign — not the economy, not terrorism, not health care, not immigration — is as important as what comes out of Donald Trump's mouth. Trump's statements have been and will remain the central organizing factor of the 2016 election.
That's why Democrats are probably content with how the debate went, despite the fact that overall, Pence put in a better performance, at least in the moment. Not that Pence did anything spectacular — he tends to come off like your new stepfather explaining why it's for your own good that he's taking away your Xbox and sending you to Bible camp — but Kaine interrupted so much that he looked overcaffeinated and rude, even missing one opportunity after another to shut his mouth and let Pence dig himself into a hole.
But no debate is really about who "won" or who had the more pleasing combination of facial gestures and sentence constructions. What's more important is what the electorate is left with afterward, whether they're informed in some meaningful way and how it might alter their views of the candidates and the parties. And on that score, Kaine helped Hillary Clinton and Pence hurt Donald Trump more than it might have appeared.
The truth is that vice-presidential nominees seldom have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, and their one debate is almost guaranteed not to change much. The most memorable moment in a VP debate happened in 1988, when Lloyd Bentsen zinged Dan Quayle with "You're no Jack Kennedy" — but you may recall which one of them became vice president afterward. So consider what we'll be talking about for the next couple of days as we run this debate around in our heads. We'll certainly talk about Russia, which was the topic of an unusual amount of discussion — but much of that will concern what the extent of Donald Trump's business interests are there, not to mention replays of both Trump and Pence's words of praise for Vladimir Putin.
Even more so, we'll talk about the pattern that repeated over and over again between Kaine and Pence, in which Kaine would bring up something offensive or bizarre or idiotic that Trump had said, whereupon Pence would shake his head and with a "What the heck is he talking about?" expression on his face deny that Trump had ever said any such thing. Unfortunately for Pence, the fact-checkers are armed and ready, and they'll be noting that in almost every case, Kaine was right and Pence was wrong. Here are some of the things that Kaine noted Trump had said, and Pence either explicitly denied or shook his head at:
- That Trump called Putin a great leader
- That Trump said more nations should get nuclear weapons
- That Trump said about nuclear war between other countries, "Good luck, enjoy yourself"
- That Trump said he wants a deportation force to round up undocumented immigrants
- That Trump said women who have abortions should be punished
- That Trump wanted to ban Muslims from entering the United States
- That Trump said NATO was obsolete
- That Trump was unaware that Russia invaded Ukraine
- That Trump said the military is a disaster
There's more, but the point is that there will be article after article in the next few days explaining that Trump did in fact say these things. Then the Clinton campaign will put together some online videos showing Pence denying that Trump said these things, along with video of Trump saying these things. Cable news will show those videos many times over the next few days — at least until the next time Trump says something appalling at a rally or in an interview.
And Trump will say many more appalling things, as sure as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Who knows, he may have already done so by the time you're reading this.
That may be what voters will take away from the vice-presidential debate, more than who interrupted more or who gave smoother answers. Again and again, the two candidates came back to talking about what Donald Trump had said, and what that said about Donald Trump. When late in the debate Kaine challenged Pence by listing a bunch of Trump's statements and saying, "I'm going to see if you can defend any of it," Pence barely bothered to try.
This debate may have been pretty good for Mike Pence if he's hoping to run for president in 2020, but it didn't really do Trump any favors. In the end, almost no one will decide their vote on the basis of which running mate they like better. But tens of millions of them just got repeated reminders of all the controversial, shocking, and offensive things that have come out of Donald Trump's mouth. Which is exactly what the Clinton campaign wanted.