The VP de­bate: Pence calm and steady, but dodges in de­fend­ing Trump

Malta Independent - - FEATURE - ■ Julie Pace and Cather­ine Lucey

Repub­li­can Mike Pence was calm and steady in the face of Demo­crat Tim Kaine’s fiery and fre­quent chal­lenges. But when it came to de­fend­ing Don­ald Trump, Pence dodged, sidestepped or was silent about some of his run­ning mate’s most provoca­tive words.

Kaine ag­gres­sively pres­sured Pence to vouch for Trump through­out the 90-minute de­bate on Tues­day night, of­ten cit­ing the brash busi­ness­man’s own words. Pence de­fended Trump’s tax his­tory, but ma­noeu­vred around crit­i­cism of Trump’s de­mean­ing com­ments about women, his public doubt­ing of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s cit­i­zen­ship and broader ques­tions about tem­per­a­ment.

“I can’t imag­ine how Gov­er­nor Pence can de­fend the in­sult-driven, me-first style of Don­ald Trump,” said Kaine, the Vir­ginia sen­a­tor and Hil­lary Clin­ton’s No. 2.

The usu­ally easy­go­ing Kaine went on the at­tack from the start and seemed de­ter­mined to make the de­bate a ref­er­en­dum on whether Trump has the dis­po­si­tion for the Oval Of­fice. He slammed Trump for hav­ing called women pigs and slobs, and con­demned the GOP nom­i­nee’s praise of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

Pence fre­quently avoided tak­ing the bait — a shrewd move for a con­ser­va­tive dar­ling who could have eyes on the Oval Of­fice him­self if Trump loses in Novem­ber. But for vot­ers seek­ing as­sur­ances from Pence about Trump’s tem­per­a­ment, there was lit­tle to cling to.

Five weeks from Elec­tion Day, the White House race ap­pears to be tip­ping in Clin­ton’s favour. She was widely viewed as the win­ner of last week’s first pres­i­den­tial de­bate, rat­tling the real es­tate mogul with jabs about his busi­ness record, re­spond­ing to his at­tacks with calm re­join­ders, and send­ing him into a multi-day tail­spin over com­ments he made about a beauty queen’s weight 20 years ago. New public opin­ion polls have shown her im­prov­ing her stand­ing in nearly all bat­tle­ground states.

Pence was markedly more pre­pared and more de­tailed in his an­swers than Trump was on the de­bate stage. He was also more con­sis­tent in paint­ing the Demo­cratic ticket as ca­reer politi­cians un­will­ing to shake up Wash­ing­ton.

“Hil­lary Clin­ton and Tim Kaine want more of the same,” Pence said. He re­peat­edly ac­cused the Democrats of run­ning an in­sult­filled cam­paign — an ironic at­tack line given that Trump has lev­elled re­peated in­sults against Clin­ton and his for­mer ri­vals in the Repub­li­can pri­maries.

Repub­li­cans hope Pence’s per­for­mance will help steady Trump’s cam­paign. But that boost could be short-lived if Trump has an­other weak per­for­mance when he and Clin­ton meet Sun­day in their sec­ond of three de­bates.

Trump is sure to be pep­pered with ques­tions in the next de­bate about his tax records, as Pence was Tues­day. Asked about re­ports that the busi­ness­man might not have paid any fed­eral taxes for years, Pence said his run­ning mate “used the tax code just the way it’s sup­posed to be used, and he did it bril­liantly.”

Records ob­tained by The New York Times showed Trump suf­fered more than $900 mil­lion in losses in 1995 that could have al­lowed him to avoid pay­ing fed­eral in­come taxes for as many as 18 years.

Kaine, too, de­fended his run­ning mate’s weak­nesses, chiefly the public’s ques­tions about her hon­esty and trust­wor­thi­ness. He said that while Trump was “self­ish,” Clin­ton had de­voted her ca­reer to help­ing chil­dren and fam­i­lies.

So­cial is­sues were a big­ger part of the con­ver­sa­tion than in the first pres­i­den­tial show­down, re­flect­ing both can­di­dates’ re­li­gious faith.

Kaine, a Catholic who per­son­ally op­poses abor­tion but has con­sis­tently voted in favour of abor­tion rights, said of the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, “Why doesn’t Don­ald Trump trust women to make this choice for them­selves?” He also pointed to Trump’s as­ser­tion that women should face some kind of “pun­ish­ment” for abor­tion, a com­ment Trump later walked back.

Pence stressed his op­po­si­tion to abor­tion and said he was “proud to be stand­ing with Don­ald Trump” on the is­sue.

On na­tional se­cu­rity, Kaine re­vived Trump’s fre­quently flat­ter­ing com­ments about Putin, the Rus­sian pres­i­dent.

“He loves dic­ta­tors,” Kaine said. “He’s got like a per­sonal Mount Rush­more: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Moam­mar Gaddafi and Sad­dam Hus­sein.”

Pence tried to flip the ta­bles by ac­cus­ing Kaine’s run­ning mate of stok­ing Rus­sia’s bel­liger­ence.

“The weak and feck­less for­eign pol­icy of Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama has awaked an ag­gres­sion in Rus­sia that first ap­peared in Rus­sia a few years ago,” Pence said. “All the while, all we do is fold our arms and say we’re not hav­ing talks any­more.”

On crim­i­nal jus­tice, Kaine ar­gued that Trump’s em­brace of “stop-and-frisk” style polic­ing was a mis­take. Pence ar­gued that Clin­ton has used po­lice shoot­ings to ar­gue that there is “im­plicit bias” in po­lice de­part­ments, and he said the Democrats should “stop seiz­ing on these mo­ments of tragedy.”

Kaine quickly shot back, “I can’t be­lieve you are de­fend­ing the po­si­tion that there’s no bias.”

The vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate was held at Vir­ginia’s Long­wood Univer­sity, which Pence called Nor­wood Univer­sity. While last week’s first pres­i­den­tial de­bate was watched by a record-set­ting tele­vi­sion au­di­ence of 84 mil­lion peo­ple, Tues­day’s con­test was ex­pected to have smaller view­er­ship given Pence’s and Kaine’s lower pro­files.

De­bate take­aways Who’s on stage?

Hil­lary Clin­ton. Don­ald Trump. Hil­lary Clin­ton. Don­ald Trump.

Most of the de­bate was dom­i­nated by peo­ple not on the stage: the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Rather than go af­ter each other, the two men im­me­di­ately took aim at the tops of their tick­ets.

In his first re­sponse, Kaine took aim at Trump, say­ing the idea of the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee as com­man­der in chief “scares” his fam­ily “to death.”

Pence shot back, say­ing Amer­i­cans were right to ques­tion Clin­ton’s trust­wor­thi­ness, cit­ing her use of a pri­vate email sys­tem while serv­ing as sec­re­tary of state. “That’s be­cause they’re pay­ing at­ten­tion,” he said.

Nei­ther Pence nor Kaine was pressed to de­fend any is­sues in their own records, in­clud­ing the pol­icy dif­fer­ences they have with their run­ning mates.

Pence the ig­norer

Kaine re­peat­edly tried to hold Pence ac­count­able for Trump’s most ex­plo­sive state­ments, open­ing the de­bate by call­ing him “Don­ald Trump’s ap­pren­tice.”

Pence did de­fend Trump over a New York Times re­port that Trump may have avoided pay­ing taxes for nearly two decades. Trump, said Pence, used the tax code “bril­liantly” dur­ing a “tough time.”

But for most of the de­bate, Pence sim­ply turned the at­tacks back on Clin­ton, leav­ing hang­ing ques­tions about Trump’s crit­i­cisms of a fed­eral judge, women and im­mi­grants. Rather than de­fend Trump’s for­eign pol­icy po­si­tions, he crit­i­cized Clin­ton’s “weak and feck­less lead­er­ship.”

At one point, Pence said he is “happy to de­fend” Trump, but then moved on to a dis­cus­sion about Rus­sia with­out ad­dress­ing nu­mer­ous is­sues raised by Kaine.

Kaine kept a tally of Pence’s dodges, an­nounc­ing more than an hour into the de­bate that Pence had avoided de­fend­ing Trump six times.

Trump’s softer side

Pence tried to turn the ta­bles on the Demo­cratic ticket by pre­sent­ing Kaine and Clin­ton as of­fer­ing an “avalanche of in­sults” and cast­ing Trump in the model of a tra­di­tional GOP can­di­date.

Af­ter Kaine re­counted a series of con­tro­ver­sial state­ments Trump has made about Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, women and other groups, Pence won­dered in­cred­u­lously, “Ours is an in­sult-driven cam­paign?”

Pence of­fered softer rhetoric when de­scrib­ing the con­tro­ver­sial poli­cies at the core of Trump’s cam­paign — his prom­ises to build a wall on the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der and an early vow to bar for­eign Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the U.S. He said Trump is eager to work across the aisle to toughen bor­der se­cu­rity and sup­port com­mu­nity polic­ing.

“He’s not a pol­ished politi­cian like you and Hil­lary Clin­ton,” he said when Kaine raised Trump’s state­ment that women should be pun­ished for hav­ing abor­tions.

Even as Pence was de­fend­ing Trump, how­ever, the busi­ness­man was tweet­ing — and retweet­ing — in­sults. “Kaine looks like an evil crook out of the Bat­man movies,” read one tweet that Trump re-posted to his ac­count.

Feisty vs. folksy

The two vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates took dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the de­bate, with Kaine hec­tor­ing Pence on nearly ev­ery re­sponse. The Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, eager to paint Clin­ton’s typ­i­cally easy­go­ing num­ber two as un­lik­able, kept a tally of over 70 in­ter­rup­tions.

Pence took a dif­fer­ent tack. Be­tween at­tacks, he sprin­kled per­sonal sto­ries and prom­ises to work across the aisle— even of­fer­ing damn­ing praise for Clin­ton and Kaine.

“Hil­lary Clin­ton and Sen­a­tor Kaine — God bless you for it, ca­reer public ser­vants, that’s great — Don­ald Trump is a busi­ness­man, not a ca­reer politi­cian,” he said.

Kaine’s zingers

Kaine came pack­ing — zingers, that is. He lobbed so many pre­pared sound­bites that Pence called out his “pre­done lines.”

“Did you work on that one a long time? Be­cause that had a lot of cre­ative lines in it,” Pence said at one point.

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