Vice-presidential debate highlights the Republican schism
by MATTHEW GAULT
Vice-presidential hopefuls Tim Kaine and Mike Pence squared off at Longwood University in Farmville, Florida on Oct. 4, 2016. The men debated a range of topics — from Russia to abortion and religion.
Their interaction was more conversational in tone than the recent presidential debate was. It also mined tough issues and showed just how far off the map Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is compared to the rest of his own Republican Party.
Pence won. He parried Kaine, stuck to the issues and only occasionally attacked Democratic presidential candidate — and clear front-runner — Hillary Clinton.
Kaine, on the other hand, was aggressive and awkwardly comedic. He brought up all the Democrats’ favotire anti-Trump talking points — taxes, misogyny, temperament — and hammered Pence with them.
Pence shrugged, looked appalled and clucked in response. He didn’t have good answers to Kaine’s charges, but it didn’t matter. Pence’s stoicism and presentation made him seem in control — and made Kaine seem inappropriate in comparison.
The most interesting and most critical part of the debate came in the last half hour, when the candidates talked about Russia — and Pence wandered far from the Trump reservation.
It was a strange debate. Kaine marched in lockstep with his candidate while Pence stretched his legs and showed he can be everything Trump isn’t — namely, well-prepared.
I got a stronger impression of what a Republican presidency might look like from Pence’s debate performance than I did from watching Trump flail and falter for 90 minutes during his own debate.
It was enlightening … and disturbing. Enlightening because I learned so much about one of our possible commanders-in-chief. Disturbing because Trump’s vice-presidential pick seems to have very different plans than his boss does.
“The thought of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief scares us to death,” Kaine said early, breaking out the first of his many pieces of practiced rhetoric. It indeed scares many of us, but that fear is a bit befuddling, as many of us us still have no idea what that presidency would actually be like.
Now we know. Back in July 2016, The New York Times reported that Donald Trump, Jr. had reached out to failed presidential hopeful John Kasich with a simple offer — did Kasich want to be the most powerful vice president in U.S. history?
Kasich demurred, but his aide asked what Kasich would be in charge of should The Donald win the presidency. “Donald, Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy,” The Times reported. Dick Cheney surely chortled when he read that.
So what would a Pence presidency be like? Simple. The Indiana governor said he wants to go “back to the days of peace through strength.”
That’s assuming Trump actually listens to Pence.
“Donald Trump and I are going to make sure that police officers have the resources and the tools to really be able to restore law and order to the cities and communities of this nation,” Pence said during his and Kaine’s discussion of police reform.
He then denied the existence of institutional racism and decried those who would seize on a national tragedy to push a political agenda.
Later, moderator Elaine Quijano asked both candidates if America was more or less safe today than previously. Kaine said the country was, in many ways, safer. He cited various statistics, hailed Barack Obama’s policies and reminded the audience of the targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Then he pointed out all the ways Trump would destabilize the world.
Pence shot back. “America is less safe today than it was the day Barack Obama became president,” he retorted. “It’s weakened America’s place in the world … mostly it’s been a lack of leadership.”
Both candidates then patted each other on the back for surviving 9/11.
Pence attacked Clinton for failing to negotiate a proper status-of-force agreement with the Iraqi government to keep more American troops in the Middle East and prevent the spread of Islamic State.
“ISIS was able to be literally conjured up, out of the desert,” Pence continued. He used the word “conjure” when referring to the creation of the Islamic State twice, as if Daesh were some spectral boogeyman and not a motley collection of criminals and zealots.
The problem with blaming Clinton for the troop withdrawal is that she had little to do with the status-of-force agreement she and Obama inherited from the administration of George W. Bush. When Obama and Clinton oversaw the exodus of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, they were executing an agreement Bush and his team signed back in 2008.
“When Donald Trump is sitting down with Vladimir Putin, is it going to be America’s bottom line or Donald Trump’s bottom line?” Kaine asked later in the debate. Kaine’s Dad-joke didn’t quite land.
Pence pointed out that Clinton sought a Russian “reset” during her term as secretary of state. The governor went on to explain how Russia’s “little green men” annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine. “The small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States,” Pence argued.
“Why do you think [Putin] will respect a Trump/Pence administration?” Quijano asked.
“Strength. Plain and simple,” Pence replied. “America is stronger than Russia … America’s political system is superior … in every way.”
As the debate wound on, Pence pledged to launch a new war in Syria. “The United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime,” Pence said.
Mind you, Russia strongly backs Assad with sea, air and ground forces. Threatening Syrian president Bashar Al Assad is tantamount to threatening Putin. Pence seemed to appreciate that equivalence. “The Russian bear never dies, it just hibernates,” he intoned.
Pence is right about Russia’s aggression and it’s heartening to hear an American politician say they’d stand up to Putin. But it’s hard to reconcile Pence’s hawkishness toward Moscow with his boss’s on-again-off-again love affair with the former KGB agent.
Pundits will probably spend the next week telling everyone how invaluable Pence is to Trump and the campaign. Experience tells us Trump listens to no one.