Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Vetting the Vice Presidential Debate

Democrat Vice Presidential nominee Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Republican Vice Presidential nominee Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) squared off in their only 2016 Election Vice Presidential Debate in Farmville, Virginia.  

Much of the District of Calamity’s punditocracy  expected the VP Debate to be a snoozer.  After all, in prior VP Debates there were few memorable moments, aside from the 1988 Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) putdown of then Senator Dan Quayle (D-IN) “You’re no Jack Kennedy” and Admiral James Stockdale’s (Reform- CO) 1992 awkward self introduction: “Who am I and why am I here.”

A Washington Post Pregame panel postulated that there was even a chance that Kaine and Pence might civilly engage in some substance.  

Boy, were we wrong. While the VP Debate lacked the memorable insults from the First Presidential Debate between Donald Trump (R-NY) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY), sparks certainly flew.

Almost from the opening salvos, Kaine employed a strategy of interrupting his opponent and being persistently provocative.  This seemed so unexpected, considering Kaine's boring reputation. During the 90 minute debate, Kaine interrupted Pence 70 times, whereas Pence reciprocated only 39 times. But Kaine’s high energy approach and often employed canned ham made his interruptions seem much more obnoxious and irritating. 

The only thing that seemed to shut Kaine up was when Pence contrasted his accomplishments as Governor of Indiana with then Governor Kaine's record in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  As a loyal soldier, Kaine apparently took the verbal spearing for raising taxes and increasing the deficit rather than take attention away from his running mate.

Senator Kaine’s rapid fire insults certainly sought to empty the verbal armory on Trump/Pence. But by badgering and using a fast talking facade, Kaine did not allow many of his attacks to gain resonance. Pence exuded the guise of being a mild-mannered Midwesterner, speaking in a less caffeinated cadence and seeming courtly. In addition, Pence masterfully credited Obama/Hillary and Kaine by recognizing their positives before tearing them down.  But these civil strategies certainly does not to suggest that Pence did not try to rhetorically draw blood from his opponent.

It seems that Kaine embraced his role of being Hillary’s attack dog and had prepared for the VP debate by memorizing myriad Trump attacks. Rather than being lured down the rabbit hole to defend each of these charges, Pence let his experience as a talk show host guide him to selectively respond.  After the stage lights dimmed, Pence's selective deflections of alleged Trump outrageous statements might be criticized as being insufficiently supporting his running mate or as opposition sound byte fodder.  But Trump revels in making big bold statements which he later modifies, so it can be exhausting to defend the indefensible. 

Senator Kaine kept bringing up the Trump tax returns.  This class warfare cudgel was wise wedge politics, it emphasized an arguable Trump flip-flop  and was certainly au currant with the illicit New York Times tax forms leak.  But repeatedly going to that well diminished its impact and then made it too obvious that it was pre-planned talking points. This was especially evident when Kaine renewed the Trump tax attack when the topic was supposed to be about North Korea nuclear weaponization.

After Kaine returned to the Trump tax routine for the sixth time,  Pence parlayed the point into some political jujitsu.  Pence countered by explaining the appearance of influence peddling which the Clinton Foundation has while Ms. Clinton was Obama's Secretary of State.  At that point, CBS moderator  Elaine Quijano cut Pence off.

While Pence comparatively spoke slowly during the debate, he allowed his analogies and attacks sink in.  Pence twice used geographical metaphors to counter Kaine's contentions.  To criticize Hillary Clinton's economic intentions, Pence referred to a mountain range of debt. Later, Pence poo-pooed Hillary's attack dog sneering an "avalanche of insults".  In our hyper-kinetic, post literate culture, being able to evoke mental pictures through words can really make an impact.  Again, this may be due to Pence's prior career on radio.

When candidates command a national audience at a debate, it is prudent to make appeals to certain voting groups.  Kaine clearly went after the womens' vote with the "Why don't you trust women to decide" on late term abortions, while shredding his faithful credentials among practical Catholics. But what was a mystery was how ineffective Kaine was in exploiting immigration.  Even though Pence chided Kaine for keep going back to "that Mexican thing", he did not make strong positive appeals to Hispanic voters.  Kaine has the background of being an Ignatian volunteer (he was never a Jesuit) in Central America and is proficient in Spanish.  In fact, he pandered en la lengua during the Philadelphia convention. Instead, it seemed that he wanted to paint Trump/Pence as "racists" for wanting to slow immigration without thorough vetting of Syrian refugees.  If Kaine's goal was to bolster the base and get out the vote, his VP Debate strategy was flawed.

Democrats are reliant of winning the black vote.  In this cycle, polling indicates that Democrats have a near lock on that segment of the voting public, but the question is whether African American voters will come out in droves to the polling place when Barack Obama is not on the ticket.  Kaine's appeal to Black voters seemed to turn on exploiting a yet  unadjudicated controversial police shooting of Philandro Castile. 

Kaine probably cited this Minnesota shooting as a way to pander to the Black Lives Matter crowd without uttering their name. But by the same token, it looks obvious that it is exploiting a tragedy and not respecting law enforcement officers presumption of innocence or right to a fair trial. If one dug into details, it was weird that the victim's girlfriend live streamed the shooting on Facebook  and ignores the guy's numerous prior encounters.  But it allowed Kaine's opponent to pitch Trump's Law and Order, mantra, as well as a Support the Police message while expressing agreement on Community Policing. 

In purely tactical terms,  Minnesota is not a battleground state and Philandro Castile is not a household name for the Black Voters as Trayvon Martin was in 2012. So Kaine's police violence forays did not win new support nor generally bolstered battleground states.  It might have been more strategic  for Kaine to point to the shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina.  But in doing so, it would not exploit the racial wedge subtext.

Pence seemed more tactical in giving his shout outs.  When touting the efficacy of stop and frisk, Pence highlighted how such a policy policy increases safety for good citizens in the inner cities, thus continuing the Trump appeal to African Americans,  In pointing out how economic recovery has not reached many Americans, Pence specifically cited Scranton (PA) and Fort Wayne as working class places which have not seen the sunny side of employment numbers.  This gave a shout out to key voters in a battleground state (ironically current Vice President "Lunch Bucket" Joe Biden's hometown). This was skillful and sounded natural.

What was remarkable for a Republican was to make an explicit appeal for pro-life voters.  The final formal question was to elucidate how each candidate was challenged in being faithful to his convictions as he acted as a public official.  

Mike Pence directed his answer to the sanctity of life and how he worked to make Indiana the most pro-adoptive state in America.  But Pence continued by questioning the conundrum of how his opponent can claim to be pro-life but politically countenance partial-term abortion.  

Kaine countered by claiming that Trump/Pence wants to punish women who make "reproductive choices". And then to slam Trump's waffling, Kaine quoted the gospel of Matthew: "From fullness, the heart speaks".   Kaine was so busy attacking on abortion that he failed to hit Pence on RFRA, which came to a flash point in the Hoosier State and could sway Same-Sex marriage supporters.

Pence rejoined by echoing St. Mother Teresa and noting  that a society can be judged by how it deals with the most vulnerable.  By emphasizing partial birth abortion, Pence made a pro-life appeal with which  90% of Americans agree and may bolster support from conservatives skeptical about supporting Trump.

Aside from being the designated attack dog, a Vice Presidential nominee on the hustings is often employed to counter deficiencies on the top of the ticket. For instance, in the 2000 Election then Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) was perceived as an inexperienced Washington outsider, so he chose consummate Between the Beltways insider ex Rep. Dick Cheney (R-WY) to give him "gravitas" in a running mate.

In this cycle, Governor Mike Pence may well have been picked as an outreach to conservatives with solid Washington and outsider experience by a novice nationalist populist politician like Donald Trump.  But Pence also offers a contrast in temperament.  Trump is known for his flamboyant, outrageous and unpredictable style, whereas Pence proved in the VP Debate that he was cool, civil and steady.  

On the other end of the political pendulum this year, a self-professed progressive Hillary Clinton chose left-leaning Tim Kaine, seemingly to win to Virginia and bank on his identity politics of being a Catholic with outreach to Hispanics.  As experienced of an insider as Mrs. Clinton is, she is not a natural politician and does not exude an inviting public personality that is believable.  A feasible mission for Kaine during the VP Debate should have been to make his running mate seem warm and fuzzy.  Instead, most people will remember the Democrat VP as acting like an obnoxious, argumentative jerk who kept interrupting.  This did nothing to mollify Hillary's warmness gap and it made many Democrats agitated at Kaine's discourtesy. 

It is dubious if a Vice Presidential debate matters much in the scheme of a Presidential election.  We could read the transcript to digest the alluvia of assertions and insults, but it did not seem that there were any measurable moments which encapsulate the event.  But I am reminded of what Maya Angelou's pearl of wisdom that: "People may forget what you've said, people will forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel."   Considering that both major party candidates would be septagenarian Commanders-in-Chief, and one has many prospective health challenges, voters need to seriously consider that the VP might actually occupy the Oval Office.  This debate made Mike Pence look statesman-like, steady and civil, which helps Trump out as well as himself. Unfortunately, Kaine seemed like a smarmy, supercilious candidate who does not play well with others. That might stick in the minds of some voters who will remember that a vote for Hillary is a vote for Kaine.

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