If you can count on a vice-presidential candidate for anything, it's going after the opposing side's presidential candidate. And at Tuesday's vice presidential debate in Virginia, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine did not disappoint on that score.
Despite a seesawing, unstable race, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton remain two of the least popular nominees in American history. Suitably enough, their running mates determined to give up on defending them and attack, attack, attack.
Pence drew the shorter straw. It's a tall enough order to defend Trump on a day chosen at random; Pence had to weather criticism focused by Kaine's prep team around the latest and greatest of Trump gaffes. But weather it he did, wincing through the worst of what Kaine dished out with vaguely martyrish aplomb and pivoting to fire back with a surprising counterattack on Kaine's own remarkably hectic barrage. Kaine, Pence managed to show, had become more like Clinton since joining the ticket — overprepared, unwilling to admit fault, and so satisfied with his zingers that they often lost their zing.
Pence wasn't all tit for tat, though. Since it is a hopeless task to appeal to liberals on any of his core issues, he did his ticket the service of feeding some traditionalist red meat to Republicans Trump has left with that hollow feeling. Vladimir Putin? Bad. Very late-term abortion? Also bad! If it was enough to bring a sorely needed feeling of balance and predictability to the party's future — and of hope that Trump might just be a nightmare we'll all wake up from come November — it was also, creepily, enough to give conservatives a feeling of looking into a time capsule at what used to be their party.
There just wasn't any use in defending Trump on the merits, and Pence knew it. Lucky for him, Kaine came on so strong and so scripted that Pence could beg for mercy on grounds of common decency and, finally, sheer boredom.
Kaine's strategy — rub Trump in Pence's face, no matter the question or whose turn it was to answer — was certainly an irritating reminder of how Trump tends to cheapen politics as a whole. And Kaine also summoned forth another bothersome recollection: the teeth-gritting way Clinton tends to sour politics in the opposite manner from Trump. Trump is like a heckler who keeps forgetting his lines; she's like a bad insult comic who swallowed a See-N-Say. At a certain point, the two vectors of awfulness push so far across the spectrum they threaten to converge.
It almost seemed as if Team Clinton had treated Kaine like a private server, wiping him of his problematic nice-guy demeanor and replacing it with more favorable bulk emails loaded with choice rants. He was so hellbent on telling us what we already know — Trump is a boor — that he, Kaine, had turned into a boor by night's end.
So, advantage Pence — great news for Republicans, theoretically, but perhaps only in the diminished sense that Trump has brought to the word. In a superior world, Trump and Clinton would be jockeying for pole position at some tinseled gala while Pence and Kaine vied for the White House. But in an even better world, neither of these two blasts from an increasingly irretrievable political past would shoulder any of the burden of charting their parties' futures. Neither Pence nor Kaine shed much light on what is coming next for America, other than that it could be really bad. Tell us something we don't know.