So, this is a bit of an unusual post for this blog but I am deep in my feels about the Vice Presidential debate and wanted to vent somewhere. I should admit from the outset – not only am I not an American citizen, but my following of this particular election as been mostly spotty. (Which is what happens when your presidential races run for over a year. Get it together, America.) But I have been watching the debates and renewing my eternal love for The Rachel Maddow Show for the last couple of weeks, so let’s do this.
On one hand, I did enjoy some parts of Tim Kaine’s debate performance. Was he excessively interrupty? Yeah, probably – and while he landed a few good hits, it wasn’t particularly impressive in most instances. Was the debate hugely unsatisfying on the whole, save for the short discussion at the end about how faith informed their politics? Definitely. But Kaine was a team player, and he did his job as an attack dog against Donald Trump.
However, the thing that was very notable – and ultimately disappointing – to me, is that the campaign seems to have taken the unique opportunity of the vice presidential debate and decided to exclusively attack the many inappropriate comments that Trump has made, and how those comments reflect the intellect and character of someone who is not fit to be President of the United States, Commander in Chief, or really, to hold any public office whatsoever. And while I firmly agree with that premise, and I recognise that, yes, it’s the VP’s job to front for the top of the ticket… I’m just really dissatisfied with that.
Because here’s the thing – Trump has never held public office. (Thank God.) Which means we don’t have a policy record to confront him with – all we have are his ridiculous and incendiary comments. But you know who does have a policy record, one that is probably one of our best indications of what a Trump administration would be like in office (especially given his disinterest in governance), one that needs a thorough and unapologetic repudiation by the Democratic Party? Governor Mike Pence.
Admittedly, it’s easier to cast Trump as a particular evil that needs to be exorcised from the GOP and political landscape rather than fully confronting the Republican Party, which at least appears more moderate. It allows for Democrats to feign respect for Mike Pence as a politician while ripping into their current adversary. But the danger is that this lets the Republican Party off the hook. The real dangers of Republican governance are most evident at the state level, where governors like Mike Pence have been continuously attacking union rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, the environment, and welfare. And this isn’t irrelevant to the bile Trump usually spews – in fact, we have seen the policy ends to which his extreme political views can be taken, and we have seen them in Republican states.
I admit, I felt validated when Rachel Maddow noted her surprise that Pence’s record on women’s and LGBT rights were not addressed, either by the debate moderator or by Kaine.
While filling Tim Kaine to the brim with ugly Trump comments to regurgitate certainly had some merit as a debate strategy, it ultimately made it feel like your basic annoying and shallow debate performance, filled with only spin and soundbites, when it could have been so much more.
In contrast, my absolute favourite moment in the debate was when Pence started talking about abortion in the context of faith, and Kaine unapologetically invited the conversation, stating “Let’s talk about abortion and choice. Let’s talk about that.” It’s easy, especially as people of faith, to be sheepish when we talk about the importance of reproductive rights and health care. Kaine’s eagerness to not only confront the Republican position on a core issue head-on, but also stand firmly in the values that the Democratic party upholds, was the most impressive and engaging point of the night. It was also the most important – demonstrating a clear contrast between the candidates rather the mostly-incomprehensible back and forth over comments made by an ignorant, overgrown toddler. (Even if he could, admittedly, could be President someday very soon. Someone find me my smelling salts.) But even here, there were a few moments where addressing Mike Pence’s record would have not only been very relevant, but would have substantively challenged the policy vision that Pence was painting for the American people.
I also can’t help but think that this could have been the perfect chance to emphasise to American voters that it’s not just the presidential election that counts. We know that some voters like to vote a split-ticket where they may, for example, vote for the Democratic presidential candidate but the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Why not use this opportunity to make a clear and impassioned argument to the American people about the values your party holds against your opponents? To showcase the horrible impact of Republican legislation at the state level and make an impassioned argument against it? Clearly, there was a strategic choice here by the Clinton campaign. One I don’t understand at all, but in fairness, her staffers are paid very well to be a lot smarter than me about what will work with the American people. I readily admit that the political strategies that I find more engaging wouldn’t necessarily be effective with a general electorate.
In the end, despite how unimpressive I found this debate, I’m disappointed that we won’t be seeing the Vice Presidential candidates head-to-head again. I think with another showing, having learned the lessons of this debate, Tim Kaine could have given a far more impressive performance, at least in terms of his demeanour – but I’m curious if they would use a different debate strategy, having seen how poorly this one played out. (Though this ad is pretty good, so it’s very possible the actual debate was never the real point.) While I’m sure the next two presidential debates will be entertaining (5 days til the next!) – I’m also pretty sure they will continue to be quite predictable. Here’s hoping the election result will also be the predictable choice.