V.P. de­bate un­likely to change tra­jec­tory of elec­tion

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist E.J. Dionne is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

Tim Kaine’s strat­egy in Tues­day night’s vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate was to go af­ter Don­ald Trump frontally, over and over again, and to chal­lenge Mike Pence to de­fend his run­ning mate.

Pence’s strat­egy was to evade de­fend­ing Trump, shake his head, pre­tend Trump hadn’t said the things that Trump said — and then move on to at­tacks against Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Kaine was feisty, a lawyer ea­ger to pros­e­cute his case. Pence was pol­ished, his deep voice re­call­ing his talk show host past. Kaine was ea­ger to chal­lenge and some­times in­ter­rupt Pence. Pence wanted cer­tain is­sues — Trump’s fail­ure to re­lease his in­come tax re­turns, for ex­am­ple — to go away.

Kaine seemed fully com­fort­able turn­ing back Pence’s at­tacks on Clin­ton. Pence loy­ally de­fended Trump where he could, but he acted as if he were re­luc­tant to walk away from the de­bate own­ing all of Trump’s record. Right from the start, Kaine placed Trump at the cen­ter of the de­bate. When the moder­a­tor Elaine Qui­jano opened by ask­ing Kaine and Pence whether they were ready to be pres­i­dent, Kaine closed his an­swer by not­ing that his Marine son was de­ployed abroad and that he and his wife, Anne, trusted Clin­ton as his com­man­der in chief. “The thought of Don­ald Trump as com­man­der in chief,” he said, “scares us to death.”

Kaine’s strat­egy con­tained echoes of Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore’s ap­proach to his 1996 de­bate with Jack Kemp, Repub­li­can nom­i­nee Bob Dole’s run­ning mate.

Know­ing of Kemp’s pride in his pro­gres­sive po­si­tion on race and civil rights, Gore said he wanted to “con­grat­u­late” Kemp for be­ing “a lonely voice in the Repub­li­can Party over the years on this ques­tion.” He sought to sep­a­rate Kemp from Dole and the Repub­li­can Party, and Kemp took the bait. Rather than de­fend his run­ning mate and the GOP, Kemp de­fended him­self and of­fered an ex­cel­lent ser­mon on tol­er­ance. In the process, he un­der­scored Gore’s at­tack line.

Time and again, Kaine tried to drive a wedge be­tween Pence and Trump, say­ing at one point he could not “imag­ine” that Pence would de­fend Trump’s “self­ish, me-first” ap­proach, and at an­other that he could not “be­lieve” that Pence would de­fend an “in­sult-driven cam­paign.”

Pence stayed loyal, say­ing he was per­fectly will­ing to de­fend Trump, but he ducked al­most all of Kaine’s specifics. Kaine called at­ten­tion to the strat­egy af­ter his re­peated ef­forts failed to draw a re­sponse: “He is ask­ing ev­ery­one to vote for some­one he will not de­fend.”

Pence was not al­ways truth­ful in his at­tacks on Clin­ton, but he was smooth and surely left many Repub­li­cans wish­ing that he, not Trump, was their nom­i­nee. Kaine saw his task as mak­ing Trump the cen­tral is­sue of the night, and he largely suc­ceeded.

It was a messy brawl, not an in­spir­ing ex­change of views, ex­cept for a sur­pris­ingly thought­ful back-and-forth on abor­tion near the end — an en­counter that no doubt frus­trated many view­ers did lit­tle to change the tra­jec­tory of the con­test.

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