- Delivering Truth Around the World
Custom Search


Jonathan Martin and Patrick Healy

Smaller Font Larger Font RSS 2.0

Oct. 4, 2016

Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia scrambled to defend the policies of their running mates in their only debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. The Times reporter Michael D. Shear weighs in on their defensive maneuvers.

By QUYNHANH DO and MICHAEL D. SHEAR on Publish Date October 4, 2016. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

FARMVILLE, Va. — Senator Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence repeatedly threw each other on the defensive over their running mates’ policies and character at the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday night, with Mr. Pence making little effort to directly rebut the near-constant attacks on Donald J. Trump’s fitness for the presidency.

Mr. Kaine was far more aggressive from the start, answering a question about his own qualifications with lengthy praise for Hillary Clinton and a declaration that “the thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death.” Mr. Kaine, trained as a litigator, frequently used this tactic of turning questions about himself and Mrs. Clinton into opportunities to extol his running mate and assail Mr. Trump.

“I can’t imagine how Governor Pence can defend the insult-driven, me-first style of Donald Trump,” Mr. Kaine said after noting that Mr. Trump had once described Mexicans as “rapists” and questioned President Obama’s citizenship.

Mr. Pence, more formal and mild-mannered than his rival, seemed frustrated by the fusillade coming from Mr. Kaine. He often looked down and shook his head slightly in the face of the attacks on Mr. Trump, while Mr. Kaine tended to interrupt and talk over Mr. Pence.


But at other points he showed a deftness that Mr. Trump often lacked at his own debate last week. And he also offered voters a face of the Republican Party that was not overly dark or angry, as Mr. Trump has often been in this race.

“Senator, you and Hillary Clinton would know a lot about an insult-driven campaign,” Mr. Pence said. “The campaign of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine has been an avalanche of insults.”

From Mr. Trump’s proposals for cutting taxes and repealing the Affordable Care Act to “ending the war on coal,” a phrase he repeated several times, Mr. Pence tried to describe Mr. Trump’s views in ways intended to energize social conservatives, working-class white voters and other Republicans while delivering a measured performance that might appeal to undecided voters who are wary of Mr. Trump’s fiery and unpredictable temperament.

Neither candidate made significant errors through the night, meeting the baseline test of not doing any harm to the top of the ticket. Of the two, Mr. Kaine appeared far different from his usual self: He has been a more mellow debater in the past, a sign that the Clinton campaign trained him to be an attack dog on Tuesday.

Mr. Pence had his strongest moments during a lengthy exchange over abortion rights, as he excoriated Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kaine for supporting laws that allowed what opponents call “partial-birth abortions.” He also argued that Mr. Kaine, a Catholic who personally opposes abortion, had bent his own views to support Mrs. Clinton’s positions on abortion.

“The very idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their life taken from them is just anathema to me,” Mr. Pence said.

But Mr. Kaine, who rarely if ever ceded a debating point through the 90-minute event, insisted that a candidate’s faith should not dictate policy. “The very last thing the government should do is punish women who make reproductive choices,” referring to a comment that Mr. Trump made on MSNBC months ago.

“Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that would punish women who made the heartbreaking choice,” Mr. Pence said. When Mr. Kaine reminded Mr. Pence of Mr. Trump’s statement to the contrary, Mr. Pence stammered.

“Look, he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton,” he said.

Mr. Pence alternated between ignoring Mr. Trump’s inflammatory comments and making it clear that he had a different view on some issues. He repeatedly offered tough talk about Vladimir V. Putin’s government in Moscow, for example, even though Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised the Russian leader.

“The Russian bear never dies, it just hibernates,” Mr. Pence said, evoking Reagan-era imagery. At another moment, Mr. Pence called Mr. Putin a “small and bullying leader.”

Mr. Kaine sought to box in the Republicans, saying, “You’ve got to be tough on Russia, so let’s start by not praising Vladimir Putin as a great leader.”

“We haven’t,” Mr. Pence protested, even though he himself said on CNN last month that Mr. Putin was “a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” But Mr. Pence during the debate flatly denied making that remark.

Mr. Pence’s refusal to justify or explain Mr. Trump’s past remarks in any detail drew withering fire from Mr. Kaine.

“Six times tonight I have said to Governor Pence, I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next, and in all six cases he’s refused to defend his running mate,” Mr. Kaine said.

“I’m happy to defend him,” Mr. Pence said, but then spent more time assailing Mrs. Clinton over the civil war in Syria and the Iran nuclear deal.

Mr. Pence said “Oh, come on” and “Oh, that’s nonsense” over and over again, but that did not seem to halt Mr. Kaine’s steady assault on Mr. Trump. At one point Mr. Pence acknowledged that he was “just trying to keep up” with Mr. Kaine’s attacks, while the Democrat shot back that he was simply using Mr. Trump’s own words against the Republican ticket. At another point, when Mr. Kaine suggested that even Ronald Reagan would find Mr. Trump unacceptable, Mr. Pence seemed almost at a loss for words.

“Senator, that was even beneath and you and Hillary Clinton — and that’s pretty low,” Mr. Pence said.

And when Mr. Kaine, for a fourth time, brought up Mr. Trump’s assertion in his presidential announcement speech last year that Mexican migrants are “criminals and rapists,” Mr. Pence flashed irritation. “Senator, you whipped out that Mexican thing again,” he said.

Mr. Kaine’s attempts to irk Mr. Pence emphasized how the Democratic ticket is determined to use the debates to inflict maximum damage on Mr. Trump by reminding voters of his divisive and even racist language and views over the years.

Mr. Trump, after a strong few weeks in September, has been struggling in the polls and on the campaign trail since his first debate last week, and Mrs. Clinton hopes to capitalize on his troubles with a series of stinging attacks in their two remaining debates.

Mr. Pence, for his part, has dutifully attacked Mrs. Clinton’s record and played down Mr. Trump’s rhetorical excesses, but he is also widely expected to seek office again if Republicans lose this year. He was therefore caught in a dilemma Tuesday, forced to choose between being unblinkingly loyal to the man who elevated him to national prominence and handing fodder to rivals in a potential future race.

In one of several moments when the candidates tried to appeal to their own distinct voting blocs, Mr. Pence attempted to drive a wedge between the Democrats’ African-American base and up-for-grabs white voters, targeting Mrs. Clinton for what he said was her practice of “bad-mouthing cops.”

“Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly,” Mr. Pence said.

Mr. Kaine argued that there is “implicit bias” in policing, a phrase Mrs. Clinton has echoed from the Black Lives Matter movement.

While vice-presidential candidates use their debates to promote and defend their running mates, Mr. Pence had the heavier political burden on Tuesday after a weeklong barrage of outbursts from Mr. Trump that renewed questions about his temperament and his ability to win in November.

Mr. Kaine aimed his political message squarely at minorities by regularly mentioning Mr. Trump’s attacks on Hispanics and illegal immigrants, and at women by noting Mr. Trump’s recent insults against a former Miss Universe who had gained weight soon after winning the pageant. Mr. Kaine argued that Mr. Trump was incapable of expressing regret or admitting he was wrong, which he described as dubious traits for a president.

“Did Donald Trump apologize for taking after somebody in a Twitter war and making fun of her weight?” Mr. Kaine said. “Did he apologize for saying President Obama was not even a citizen of the United States?”

Mr. Pence sought to deflect questions about Mr. Trump’s failure to release his tax returns by noting how many jobs the hotel developer had created, and he defended Mr. Trump’s use of the tax code to claim a $916 million loss that may have helped him avoid paying federal income taxes for nearly 20 years.

“Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician,” Mr. Pence said. “Those tax returns showed that he faced some pretty tough times.”

“But why won’t he release his tax returns?” Mr. Kaine said interjected.

The moderator, Elaine Quijano of CBS News, lost control of the debate at several points as Mr. Kaine trampled on Mr. Pence’s two-minute answers.

Mr. Kaine used a discussion of foreign policy to unleash a torrent of attacks on Mr. Trump for his breezy comments on nuclear weapons and praise for a series of authoritarian strongmen.

“He loves dictators, he’s got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore,” said the senator, citing leaders like Mr. Putin and Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

Mr. Pence sidestepped Mr. Kaine’s criticism, instead mocking his rival for lobbing a rehearsed attack. “Did you work on that one a long time?” Mr. Pence deadpanned.

“Let’s see if you can defend any of it,” Mr. Kaine shot back.

But Mr. Pence made no real attempt to do so.

The next debate, on Sunday, will feature Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton in a town meeting format where voters will ask questions. The third presidential debate will be on Oct. 19.