The most important thing about the vice presidential debate was what didn’t happen.
Neither Indiana Gov. Mike Pence nor Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine was pressed at all on his qualifications for the job, or on his readiness to become president if necessary. Nor was either candidate required to answer for any personal scandal. And, with minor exceptions, neither candidate had to defend his record in public office, or what he has said on the campaign trail.
That’s because both of them are widely perceived as well-qualified, scandal-free and relatively noncontroversial. (The biggest vulnerability either of them has is probably Pence’s fairly extreme record on social issues, but it’s not much of an electoral issue because he’s effectively aligned with his party.)
If “do no harm” is the first campaign requirement for a running mate – and it is – it’s worth stepping back a moment to credit both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for making first-rate choices.
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As far as what did happen on Tuesday night, there was nothing of electoral importance. It’s hard to believe that any significant number of votes will be moved by this debate – that would be consistent with the history of these vice presidential contests.
Was there a winner? I'll quote two pundits who I think were on to something.
National Review’s Rich Lowry said: “Kaine strategy – lose debate but quote Trump a lot; Pence strategy – win debate but don’t defend Trump.” Kaine came ready to attack, and Pence came ready to reassure anyone watching that the Trump-Pence ticket was far more disciplined and in control than it seemed when Trump was on the debate stage.
Which leads to Vox’s Ezra Klein, who tweeted: “It sort of works in the debate, but Pence shaking head, saying ‘no he hasn’t' is going to look bad in ads next to Trump saying those things.”
Pence repeatedly dealt with accusations about what Trump has said or done by denying them, shrugging them off, or accusing the Clinton campaign of being overly negative.
It’s true that Clinton has run a negative campaign. But, of course, it’s untrue that she has tossed off anywhere close to the number of insults Trump has, since no mainstream politician in the history of the republic has come anywhere close to the reality-show star on that.
But overall, neither the “win the debate” nor the “land attacks on the candidate” strategy is likely to change what any voter decides to do.
Other than that, the debate was for the most part uninspiring, with both candidates well-prepared with forgettable attack lines and zingers that had little zing.
Pence was a bit more polished as a debater, perhaps, but he also produced the closest thing to a gaffe – complaining, after Kaine quoted one of Trump’s bigoted remarks for the fourth or fifth time, that Kaine had “whipped out that Mexican thing again.”
Moderator Elaine Quijano started off slowly, asking a couple of useless questions about what the polls are saying about Clinton and Trump and then posing an absolutely terrible question about the national debt. (This implied 1. that the national debt is the most important factor in the economy and 2. that it is neutral and nonpartisan to make that claim.)
But she also asked some pretty good questions, pushing the candidates, for example, to talk about North Korea (which neither seemed interested in doing), and then actually producing a fascinating debate over abortion law.
At least with the presidential debates there’s a good defense of the exercise because it pushes candidates to make promises – an essential part of democratic representation. The vice-presidential debates don’t have that going for them.
Would anyone miss these events if we got rid of them?
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about U.S. politics.