Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence flashed real skills as a debater on Tuesday night. Unlike his running mate, he was armed with specific facts and practiced attack lines about the Democratic Party in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular. Pence was measured, calm, and unflappable. He often looked and sounded much better than Democrat Tim Kaine.
But there was a problem. Mike Pence, perhaps for his own sanity, is pretending that his running mate is a generic Republican rather than Donald Trump.
Over and over again, Kaine quoted Trump's more outlandish statements about Mexicans, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or nuclear proliferation. Sometimes they weren't even outlandish, but just cut against Republican Party orthodoxy. And Pence just shook his head derisively, as if Kaine had made it all up.
Pence seemed to know that it would be a losing strategy to explain or defend the scores of zany, offensive, or discomfiting things Trump has said. So he just pretended to be Lindsey Graham's veep candidate instead.
Months ago, Trump gave a foreign policy speech in which he praised the values of an "America First” foreign policy. Citing the disasters in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, Trump criticized the Bush Doctrine itself. "It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy," he said.
Mike Pence ignored this. Instead, he went with what had become the normal Republican attack on Democratic foreign policy over the last five decades: that the Democrats are too weak. ISIS and other calamities in the Middle East were caused by a lack of American action, Pence implied. Or by the Democratic president withdrawing troops on the schedule set by a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq.
Pence laughed and shrugged when Kaine pointed out that Trump said NATO is obsolete. Pence then launched into a long discourse about Russian perfidy. He said that the solution to Russian expansionism in its near-abroad was sterner American leadership, and he even started talking about a military buildup. You'd have no clue that a few months ago, Trump had dismissed pessimists about America's relations with Russia by saying, "Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon… Some say the Russians won't be reasonable. I intend to find out."
It's normal for members of a political party to project onto their party leader their own beliefs. Millions of Republicans are going to pull the lever for Trump this year because they believe a man who spent years defending even late-term abortions and most gun restrictions will faithfully defend pro-life causes and the Second Amendment. But it is not normal to watch a candidate's running mate go through this exercise publicly.
It's as if Pence was the designated survivor of the Republican primary, a man held away from the carnage Trump has inflicted on the Republican Party, its conventions, orthodoxies, and pieties. Party figures like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani embrace Trump as he is. Others, like Paul Ryan, try to demand more, and get nothing in return. Ted Cruz tried to shiv Trump at the convention, then feebly extracted a meaningless promise from him before endorsing him in September. Every strategy of blocking Trump, co-opting Trump, or parlaying with him as failed.
But in this debate, Pence did something that no one has tried before. He simply refused to acknowledge that there was any problem at all. You've heard lots of crazy things about Trump. But I'm here to do a job, and frankly, acknowledging the reality of his situation or ours can only get in my way. Pence made it seem as if Trump's own words, when spoken by Tim Kaine, somehow discredited Tim Kaine. Mike Pence was a walking, talking memory hole.
As a debate strategy it was somewhat canny and inventively dishonest. But it also had the surreal feel of street theater and performance art. That's where this campaign is at now. Mike Pence is square-jawed, focused, and looks like a casting agent's idea of a Republican leader. And last night he stood before the world in one of the most avant garde performances in political history.