Vice presidential debate shows what might have been

There were really two debates tonight during the Kaine-Pence encounter. The first was a policy debate in which the key questions were whether, on a range of issues, Obama administration is a success and whether there’s a need for major change. The second was a debate over the merits of Donald Trump and, more particularly, whether a wide range of statements by Trump can be defended.

Mike Pence won the first debate, in my opinion. He did so despite being repeatedly interrupted by Tim Kaine — interruptions that moderator Elaine Quinjano permitted until well into the debate.

Pence won this portion of the debate by taking conservative positions and explaining them well. At times, this meant taking positions I haven’t heard Trump take and that, in cases, seemed inconsistent with Trump’s stance (though I’d have to check to be sure about this).

As for Kaine’s interruptions, they actually ended up helping Pence because the Indiana man refused to be ruffled. The electorate apparently did not mind Joe Biden’s interruptions of Paul Ryan four years ago. But Biden, the sitting vice president was well known and (for some reason) liked by Americans going into the debate.

Kaine is not well known. He did his ticket no favors by introducing himself with such a rude, smug, and downright obnoxious performance.

The policy-oriented debate would have been the only one that mattered had the Republicans nominated any number of qualified conservative Republican candidates. But because they nominated Donald Trump — a non-conservative and a Republican only for sake of convenience — the second debate mattered too.

Kaine won that debate. Kaine repeatedly made statements like “I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend” statement X or position Y of Donald Trump. Pence typically responded that he would be happy to defend the statement or the position, but rarely did so. Most of the time, he either shook his head or said “nonsense.”

In fairness to Pence, some of the statements and positions Kaine called on Pence to defend are indefensible. Nor would it have been a good strategy for Pence to play lots of defense.

Pence needed short, crisp answers to at least some of the charges (it wasn’t necessary answer them all). He actually had some, but stumbled at times to get them out.

On calling Mexicans rapists, it wasn’t until the second or third time the statement came up that Pence finally reminded us that rapists have entered the country illegally from Mexico and that Trump also said that Mexicans were good people. On the New York Times tax story, Pence seemed to take forever to use his best line of response: Trump took a deduction he was entitled to take; do you (Sen. Kaine) take the deductions the law entitles you to take?

The failure by Pence to refute most of Kaine’s charges and his less than effective answers to others prevented tonight from being a big win for Trump-Pence. Yes, Pence won, but I doubt that this debate will move the needle. And let’s not rule out the possibility that Trump will rapidly undo Pence’s good work with a barrage of ridiculous and/or offensive tweets.

Ah, what might have been.