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VP Debate Proves More Exciting—and Aggressive—Than Expected

By Annmarie Mullen | 10/7/16 8:12am | Updated 10/7/16 8:12am
Julienne Devita / American Word Magazine

The vice presidential debate took place Tuesday night at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Before the debate, few people knew or cared about Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, or Governor Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s running mate. Neither man has the appeal or the personality of the presidential nominees, and their debate was expected to be formal, subdued and boring—the opposite of the boisterous presidential debate. But Kaine and Pence surprised with their aggressive performances.

Before delving into the details of the debate, a bit of background on the candidates is helpful. Tim Kaine is a junior senator from Virginia. Elected in 2012, he previously served as the governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010 and the Democratic National Convention chairman from 2009 to 2011. Kaine, like Clinton, falls on the moderate, left side of most pressing issues of the day, including abortion, LGBT rights and immigration. Though a less than thrilling candidate, he has a respectable career in politics. Governor Mike Pence is the governor of Indiana. Elected in 2012, he previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2013. Pence supports the ultraconservative Tea Party movement; however, he and his running mate Donald Trump have disagreed on certain policy issues, leading some pundits to ask how he would reconcile his beliefs with Trump’s.

The week leading up to the Vice Presidential debate was a difficult one for Trump. He fell behind Clinton in many major polls and incited controversy with his comments on a former Miss Universe contestant, Hillary Clinton’s fidelity to her husband and soldiers with PTSD. Clinton, meanwhile, surged ahead in national polls, including in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania.

The debate started with a question on both men’s leadership abilities in the event they would succeed to the office of the president. Both men pointed to their long experience in various aspects of politics, while also throwing out buzzwords intended to excite the base. Kaine made sure to drop Clinton’s campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” and mentioned his son serving overseas in the Marine Corps. Pence, meanwhile, was quick to denigrate the Obama administration, particularly its “War on Coal,” a pressing issue in Virginia and West Virginia.

The debate quickly devolved into a mess of insults and interruptions. A question on Clinton’s trustworthiness sparked an argument over Clinton’s foreign policy record, with Kaine repeatedly asserting that Clinton had helped kill Osama bin Laden while Pence conjured the specter of ISIS and traced its inception to Clinton’s policies. The candidates also traded barbs over the economy, with Pence promising a change from Obama’s economic policies. Kaine, meanwhile, listed off a comprehensive, if rehearsed, five point plan for economic recovery. The discussion also brought up the problem of Trump’s missing tax returns, a theme that Kaine in particular hammered over and over again throughout the debate, whether the question was about Russia, North Korea, or Social Security. Pence repeatedly dodged the question.

Perhaps the most contentious moment of the debate came at the end when the questions turned to faith. Both Kaine and Pence are outspoken about their deep religious beliefs, and moderator Elaine Quijano asked about a time when their faith clashed with their public policies. Kaine erred on the side of caution, describing his opposition to the death penalty rooted in his Catholic faith. He spoke about his struggles as governor of Virginia, a state with the death penalty on the books.

Pence chose the more controversial position, discussing his opposition to abortion, opening him up to an attack on the campaign’s treatment of women. Kaine pointed to an interview Donald Trump did with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in which Trump suggested that women who terminated their pregnancies should be punished. Pence insisted that Trump had never made such a suggestion and attempted to take the moral high ground, positioning himself and Trump on the side of life.

The media polls varied on who won. Pundits criticized Kaine for his aggressiveness and penchant for interrupting Pence. He did, however, show more personality than expected and adequately backed up his own candidate while hammering at Trump’s more controversial positions. Pence, meanwhile, received praise for his cool and unflappable demeanor, but his refusal to answer the questions posed and his attempts to sidestep the issue of Trump’s offensive statements towards immigrants and women diminished his performance.

A quick CNN poll of undecided Virginia voters immediately after favored Tim Kaine over Mike Pence, but the majority of news media has given the slightest of edges to Pence’s performance. What is known, though, is that the debate was far more interesting than expected, with as many interruptions and jabs as the presidential debate. Whether the debate will affect the election is another story. Both sides may have impressed their bases enough to keep the polls balanced, at least until the next presidential debate on October 9.