Tim Kaine is the ultimate loyal foot soldier

Mike Pence proved to be the better debater. But Tim Kaine proved to be the better vice presidential candidate.

Tim Kaine
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

During Tuesday's vice-presidential debate, Donald Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, was a better debater. But Hillary Clinton's running mate, Tim Kaine, proved to be the more loyal foot soldier — and thus, the better vice presidential candidate.

The beginning of the debate was wretched on all sides. Moderator Elaine Quijano asked some grotesquely biased austerian questions presuming the necessity of large cuts to the budget deficit and Social Security. Kaine appeared hyperactive, repeatedly interrupting Pence with nitpicks or counter-arguments. Pence, though he was much more calm and mellifluous, also came off as aggressive and weird, constantly trying to talk over his opponent.

But after the first 20 minutes, the debate settled down into a more comfortable groove, and Kaine's strategy became clear. Instead of attacking Pence, or even really trying to win the debate, Kaine doggedly kept the focus on Trump, constantly confronting Pence with Trump's mile-long list of objectionable views and offensive statements. He had clearly been prepped with a huge file of opposition research, and he was determined to use his airtime to get it all out there.

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Pence had a pretty effective strategy for this: Lying through his teeth. Kaine correctly said that Trump had called NATO obsolete (in a tweet that was still up at the time of writing, no less), but Pence denied it. Kaine correctly said that Trump had promised to deport all unauthorized immigrants and ban Muslim entry into the the United States, but Pence denied it. Kaine correctly said Trump had called Vladimir Putin a better leader than President Obama, but Pence denied it.

In the context of a debate, it worked pretty well. It's hard to win an argument with someone who is committed to outright, stone-cold deception — though the mask did slip at one point, when Kaine hammered Pence over and over on Trump's statement that Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea should have nuclear weapons. It was apparently too much for even Pence to deny immediately, and he stammered for several seconds before managing to change the subject again. It was the most successful attack of the night, and momentarily revealed the amoral, reptilian calculation beneath Pence's oleaginous surface.

Still, with his radio manners and mastery of the traditional politician affect, Pence appeared more convincing and reasonable overall. For traditional definitions of victory, Pence won.

But winning the debate wasn't what Kaine was aiming at. He was concerned above all with defending the leader of his party, and attacking the leader of the opposition. So while it was somewhat awkward to attack Pence with stuff about another person instead of his own record, the debate must be counted as a strategic win for the Clinton campaign.

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Pence, by contrast, barely even mentioned Trump, aside from lying about what he had said. The few times Pence positively mentioned his running mate was in reference to regular old conservative economic ideas and foreign policy that, especially in the case of Russia, Trump does not even support. Pence was pretty clearly angling for the 2020 election, and giving us a preview of how elite Republicans will attempt to process the Trump nomination: by denying it ever happened.

Who knows, it might even work. As a presidential nominee, Pence would surely be running several points ahead of where Trump is now. But that will have to wait.

For now, we see why Clinton selected Kaine as her running mate. For all his flaws, he is undoubtedly extremely loyal and willing to subordinate his own goals to that of the overall campaign. A bolder approach might have worked better — I suspect Elizabeth Warren would have beaten Pence and walloped Trump at the same time — but cautious and dogged is just how the Clintons roll. For better or worse, that's how the Clinton campaign, and the possible future Clinton administration, will operate.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.