The Typical and the Spectacle

A tale of two debates.

On Oct 5, two men debated policy on national TV, occasionally — but also somewhat amicably — clashing over difference in opinion. One wore a red tie, the other blue. It was the first and only vice presidential debate of 2016.

In a year of iconoclastic political figures, it was refreshing to see what many might consider a typical Republican and Democrat speak. Tim Kaine and Mike Pence are both respected within their own parties. The former is Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president; the latter is Donald Trump’s.

Each represented a counter to their presidential nominees’ weaknesses. For Trump, he sought someone who could reassure traditional Republicans — particularly religious ones –that he did share their values, despite his multiple marriages and previous stance on abortion. Clinton, on the other hand, sought someone uncontroversial, palatable, and even boring. She found him.

It is often said the the job of a vice presidential candidate is to “do no harm.” So far, both Kaine and Pence have fulfilled that duty. Pence has done so well, in fact, his good behavior offers a glaring contrast with the blunders and remarks made by Trump.

Last week, Kaine seemed prepared but anxious on the debate stage. He came off almost over- caffeinated, as evidenced by his awkwardly delivered zingers: “You’re Donald Trump’s Apprentice”; or, “Do [voters] want a ‘you’re hired’ president under Hillary Clinton or do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president under Donald Trump?”

It’s possible that Kaine was sent in as an attack dog to drive a wedge between Pence and Trump, building on concerns about any of the nominee’s scandals from the past few weeks. Many of Kaine’s arguments felt like continuations of Hillary Clinton’s closing remarks from the first debate — a laundry list of reasons why Donald Trump is unqualified and the abhorrent things he has said.

While Kaine looked uncomfortable, by contrast, Pence was polished — batting away his opponent’s arguments without much issue. He did struggle to reconcile his own views with several of Trump’s more volatile statements however, in particular Trump’s comments on nuclear armament, diplomatic relations with Russia, and calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “stronger leader” than President Barack Obama.

The Clinton campaign may have, in fact, conceded the vice presidential debate. With a few notable exceptions, vice presidential debates rarely shift the minds of voters. But for Clinton, allowing Kaine to spend ninety minutes expanding on their already-voiced objections to Trump may prove more productive in the long-term.

Throughout the night, Pence succeeded in reassuring evangelical conservatives that he shared their values. But if anything, he also highlighted the contrast between himself and Trump on commitment to that demographic.

An audio recording released on Friday didn’t help. The tape featured vulgar, sexually explicit comments Trump made about his aggressive advances towards women, and the liberties he felt entitled to take with them because of his status as a “star.”

Since the release, House Speaker Paul Ryan and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus have heavily condemned Trump for his so-called “locker room banter.”  On Saturday, Ryan uninvited him from a campaign event in Wisconsin, and on Monday the New York Times reported a “hammer blow:” the speaker refuses to defend Trump any longer, turning his attention and his party’s resources to saving the Republican majority in Congress. Just short of revoking his endorsement, this puts Ryan in the awkward position of publicly condemning Trump, while still more or less encouraging voters to support him. Along with  Senator John McCain and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, several notable Republicans are jumping ship, revoking their support of Trump altogether.  

After the video of Trump’s lewd comments on women broke on Friday, it’s hard to imagine that the unabashedly traditional Pence was anything but astonished. Were there to be another vice presidential debate, Trump would have provided Tim Kaine with new and more potent fodder to throw at his rival.

Pence’s debate performance and Trump’s increasingly visible weakness with traditional Republicans sparked talk of pushing the real estate mogul off the top of the ticket and letting Pence run for president himself. However, only Trump can give up the title of nominee after the Republican National Convention, and Pence was reportedly considering leaving the campaign following the revelation of the 2005 tapes. Nonetheless, this idea of subversion was in the back of many minds as the second presidential debate opened on Sunday night.

Before the debate began, Trump sat down with a surprise panel of Bill Clinton’s accusers; three women who allege he had sexually assaulted them in the past. It left the opening remarks with a tension that could be seen on the candidates’ faces. The women sat in the front row.

Unlike the first debate, there was no opening handshake between Clinton and Trump.

Trump deflected a question from moderator Anderson Cooper about the audio recording, reducing it to “locker room talk” and saying ISIS was more important — without explaining why he was better suited than Clinton for fighting them. He quickly fell back on his familiar stance of cracking down on immigration and a commitment to  “make America great again.”

Clinton followed up by calling Trump a poor comparison to past Republican nominees. “Talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. He has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is… it represents exactly who he his,” Clinton said.

Trump responded by calling former President Bill Clinton the worst abuser of women in the “history of politics.”

Trump said that if he wins the presidency, he will have his attorney general investigate Clinton’s “situation,” and would hire a special prosecutor for the task. Claiming that, if he were President, Clinton would “be in jail.”

It was this exasperating moment, in which Trump seemed willing to say anything in order to elicit applause, that the debate began to feel not just contentious, but dangerous. It is unprecedented for one presidential candidate to threaten to imprison the other if elected. “Lock her up,” a popular chant at Trump rallies, had found its way into the official discourse between the candidates. The debate threatened to get uglier from this point, but, surprisingly, moved forward to more civil topics.

On the question of healthcare, Trump fell back on his old proposal for “getting rid of the lines around the states,” which would theoretically increase competition among different health care plans. During the primary, his then-opponent Marco Rubio exposed a lack of details to Trump’s proposal by repeatedly asking him about it. The only response Trump had to those questions was “there will be many plans.”

When a Muslim-American asked a question about Islamophobia, Trump responded by saying, “Muslims have to report things when they see them.” He used the San Bernardino shooting as an example; claiming that (presumably Muslim) neighbors of the shooters had been aware of bombs in their apartment — a claim that has been proven false.

He lambasted Clinton’s foreign policy record but offered worryingly simplistic alternative solutions. His statement, “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia,” seemed to indicate that he is either ignorant of the diplomatic complications of Syria, or chooses to disregard them. Neither is particularly comforting.

He also seemed to believe that during her time as a New York senator, Clinton possessed the power to unilaterally change the tax code. “Why didn’t you change it?”

Despite these blunders, Trump repeatedly won applause from the audience. Though Clinton was by far the more experienced of the two with the town hall format, Trump seemed more comfortable with it than he had with the more traditional style of the first debate. This was the atmosphere in which Trump could thrive: head on confrontation, where he could directly attack his opponent in real time; moving on to the next accusation before the opponent could respond to the first. Even as Clinton spoke, he could be seen looming behind her; an unsettling image, given the events that had unfolded only days before.

At the close of the debate, the general consensus was that neither candidate had decisively won. A New York Times headline on Monday morning read “Donald Trump Avoids Annihilation.” His ability to maneuver away from disaster was the main development of the night. He did not trounce Clinton, but he did well enough to squelch any talk of replacing him with his vice presidential pick; Pence offered his unqualified support for his running mate the next day.

The most telling comment on his current situation came from the debate, when Trump answered a question on what he thought of Mike Pence’s policy on Syria: “He and I haven’t spoken. And I disagree.”

Trump is the Republican nominee, and now it seems that will not change. Like the vice presidential debate, the Clinton campaign may have reaped benefits by avoiding an outright victory by letting the prospect of a Trump presidency make their case for them.

Header image: Right — Tim Kaine and Mike Pence square off in a vice presidential debate (New York Post). Left — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton grimace together before the start of the second presidential debate (E!)