Pence per­for­mance a pre­lude to 2020?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE -

Colum­nist Dana Mil­bank looks at the pos­si­ble im­pact of Mon­day's vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate.

FAR­MVILLE, VA. >> In the clos­ing days of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee stopped in this tobacco town to for­tify his bedrag­gled troops. With Union forces in hot pur­suit, Lee aban­doned the ef­fort, fled town — and sur­ren­dered at nearby Ap­po­mat­tox two days later.

Tues­day night, Mike Pence came to Far­mville for the vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate against Demo­crat Tim Kaine with a sim­i­lar mis­sion: try­ing to halt the re­treat, and re­vive the troops, after last week’s rout of Don­ald Trump in the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate.

Pence came pre­pared with a sound bat­tle plan: He would avoid dis­cussing Trump to the great­est ex­tent pos­si­ble. And, in ex­e­cut­ing his plan, he fared rather bet­ter than Lee.

Asked why Amer­i­cans think Trump is “too er­ratic,” Pence re­sponded — by talk­ing about Hil­lary Clin­ton and her for­eign pol­icy.

“I do want to get back to the ques­tion,” mod­er­a­tor Elaine Qui­jano of CBS News coaxed. When Pence con­tin­ued on about Clin­ton, she re­peated: “In the mean­time, the ques­tions .... ”

Pence fi­nally men­tioned that Trump has “ex­tra­or­di­nary busi­ness acu­men” and “em­ployed tens of thou­sands” — then quickly went back to Clin­ton’s trust­wor­thi­ness.

Qui­jano asked Pence to talk about Trump’s claim that he “bril­liantly” used the tax laws. Pence re­sponded — by talk­ing about the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Gover­nor,” Qui­jano fi­nally in­ter­jected, “with all due re­spect, the ques­tion was about whether it seems fair to you that Mr. Trump said he bril­liantly used the laws to pay as lit­tle tax as legally pos­si­ble.”

Stylis­ti­cally, Pence was strong: calmer than Kaine, in­ter­rupt­ing less of­ten, and re­peat­edly lur­ing Kaine to re­spond to him. He likely won the de­bate on points, helped by a canned and some­times shrill Kaine. But in a broader sense, Pence suc­ceeded by avoid­ing dis­cus­sion of Trump and his poli­cies. To the ex­tent he de­fended Trump at all, he did so by deny­ing Trump had said and done things that Trump had, in fact, said and done.

In that sense, you might con­sider this the first ap­pear­ance of Mike Pence’s 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. He didn’t turn against his run­ning mate, but he helped him­self more than he helped Trump.

Repub­li­cans watch­ing Pence’s strong per­for­mance Tues­day night had ev­ery rea­son to kick them­selves. Had Repub­li­cans cho­sen a main­stream con­ser­va­tive like Pence, there is ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve that can­di­date would be lead­ing Clin­ton, who has proved to be a weak gen­eral elec­tion can­di­date in this year of change.

Pence hasn’t tweeted about a sex tape at 5 a.m. He hasn’t shamed a woman pub­licly for gain­ing weight. He didn’t mock a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent’s pneu­mo­nia-in­duced stum­ble, nor claim that his op­po­nent is “crazy” and un­faith­ful to her hus­band, nor sug­gest that vet­er­ans with PTSD are weak.

Trump did all that — in the space of a sin­gle week since his first-de­bate flop.

A run­ning mate’s usual task in a de­bate, and in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign gen­er­ally, is to as­sure the pub­lic he or she could take over if the un­think­able oc­curs. In Pence’s case, there’s no ques­tion about his fit­ness to serve. The ques­tion is whether Trump is pre­pared to serve.

That Pence could be a heart­beat from the pres­i­dency makes pulse rates calm. That Trump could be pres­i­dent causes tachy­car­dia.

Kaine, there­fore, did all he could to keep the fo­cus on Trump: “The thought of Don­ald Trump as com­man­der in chief scares us to death . ... Don­ald Trump al­ways puts him­self first . ... He has pur­sued the dis­cred­ited and re­ally out­ra­geous lie that Pres­i­dent Obama wasn’t born in the United States.”

But Pence had a sim­ple parry: noun, verb, Hil­lary Clin­ton. As Kaine hec­tored him to de­fend Trump’s “in­sult-driven” talk of women as slobs and pigs and Mexicans as rapists and crim­i­nals, Pence volleyed: “That’s small pota­toes com­pared to Hil­lary Clin­ton call­ing half of Don­ald Trump’s supporters a bas­ket of de­plorables.”

Kaine re­peat­edly — by his own count, six times — chal­lenged Pence to de­fend Trump on one point or an­other.

“In all six cases, he’s re­fused,” Kaine com­plained to­ward the end of the de­bate.

“Don’t put words in my mouth,” Pence protested. “I’m very, very happy to de­fend Don­ald Trump.”

Ah, but spar­ingly: Not enough to ap­pear overtly dis­loyal, but not so much that it will harm his fu­ture pres­i­den­tial prospects after Trump’s Ap­po­mat­tox.

Dana Mil­bank is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

Dana Mil­bank

Colum­nist

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