Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Vice-Presidential Debate

There seems to be an emerging consensus among the pundit class that Republican Mike Pence got the better of last night's vice-presidential debate, or at least that he "won" (whatever that means) on "style," while Democrat Tim Kaine flunked on style but "won" on "substance." I am not sure it matters much whether one "wins" a debate - especially a vice-presidential debate. (If Lloyd Bentsen's famous "You're no Jack Kennedy" retort to Dan Quayle won him that debate in 1988, he and Michael Dukakis still lost the election!)

More interesting is what the debate revealed - or didn't - about the candidates and about this election. Mike Pence repeated traditional Republican rhetoric about low taxes and small government - topics of marginal interest either to Trump or to his white nationalist base, but orthodoxy to the Republican elite for whom it is always 1980 and ronald Reagan is always riding to the nation's rescue. Pence sounded more like what a more conventional Republican presidential candidate running this year probably would have sounded like. Tim Kaine's obvious strategy was to force Pence to identify himself instead with Trump. Over and over again, Kaine challenged Pence to defend Trump's more controversial statements and actions. But Pence never really did so. Some think this will help him to position himself for 2020. About that, only time will tell. Picking up the pieces of a fractured Republican party will be a complex operation. If nothing else, the revolt of the hitherto taken-for-granted Republican white nationalist base against the party's traditional elites means that no one will simply "inherit" the leadership next time around.

Democrats, meanwhile, never seem to make as strong a case as they could for their own policies. For example, when Pence attacked Obamacare, Kaine missed the opportunity to point out the obvious fact that lots of Americans now have medical insurance who didn't before - and to ask what exactly the Republicans have to say to those whose insurance they seem to advocate taking away. 

Substantively, I think, Kaine's strategy of trying to force Pence to defend Trump was a smart one. But his tactic of constantly interrupting was just plain rude. Of course, I am from an older generation that was taught that rudeness is bad. Nowadays rudeness is just normal conversation! Still Kennedy and Nixon would never have interrupted each other that way. And thanks to all the interrupting - Pence did it too, although not as much as Kaine - there were times when it was actually hard for the TV audience to follow what was being said.

Given that this was a debate between a Catholic who is very vocal about his faith and a former (what we used to call "lapsed") Catholic who is very vocal about his newer Evangelical alternative, one might have expected more talk about basic principles. Only the final question explicitly invited that. The question challenged the candidates about how they had dealt during their political careers with possible conflicts between their personal faith and their constitutional responsibilities as office holders. Kaine answered by talking about how he enforced Virginia's death penalty statue in spite of his own religious beliefs opposing the death penalty. Pence, who had an embarassing experience in Indiana last year where he had to backtrack on a religion issue, chose not to answer the question and instead changed the subject to his views on abortion - an area in which he obviously has strong convictions and feels comfortable expressing them. Kaine's position on that issue is more muddled and conflicted - and it showed.

Still the fact that it was Pence (not the moderator) who brought up abortion, which hitherto has hardly been mentioned in the campaign, and the fact that no one at all has brought up marriage equality or religious liberty issues really shows the extent to which the so-called "culture war" has been sidelined - and may be effectively over.

That culture war may be history, but this election is very much a contest between two American cultures - one apparently ascendant demographically and otherwise, the other apparently in retreat demographically and otherwise. Again, what will ultimately happen, only time will tell.

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