US Vice-Presidential debate: Tim Kaine whips out that "Mexican thing"

Trump's running mate was the clear winner overall, if style counts for more than substance.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In the blue corner for Team Clinton was Tim Kaine (white bread with mayonnaise; an “I'm still cool, dudes” dad on a '90s TV sitcom, one arched eyebrow) and in the red corner for Team Trump was Mike Pence (white bread with low fat mayonnaise; a stern “no way are you going out looking like that, young lady” dad on a '70s sitcom, permanent nonplussed frown).

On paper, the two were evenly-matched: Kaine a popular senator for Virginia, Pence, a considerably less popular governor of Indiana. Both have a son on active duty in the marine corps.

But Tuesday's vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, was between two surrogates for deeply unpopular presidential candidates, and because of that each spent most of the time defending their running-mate's record from the other, while trying to land blows in pre-prepared segments calculated to make good clips for cable news.

Pence was the clear winner overall, if style counts for more than substance, which, in a televised debate, it obviously does. He was calm while Kaine was animated; he had his eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed in a way that seemed perfectly calculated to project stability and trust. His speech was slower, more measured. He absorbed the blows. Kaine had almost too much material to work with, and seemed unable to decide which attack lines to double down on.

Kaine's constant interruptions made him seem needy, a terrier nipping at the legs of Pence's noble wolfhound. It played badly on TV. On the other hand, Pence was a masterclass in controlled, restrained performance.

But let's talk about substance for a second. Pence — given the unenviable task of defending Trump's wild, madcap utterances — chose to take a leaf from his running-mate's book to go for bare-faced lies. Pressed by Kaine, as well as moderator Elaine Quijano, over his running-mate's policies and utterances, Pence simply denied and denied, even when the charges were unquestionable.

He even attempted to deny that Trump had said Mexican immigrants were “rapists” — despite the fact that Trump had said so on live television, before a huge audience, in the very speech where he declared his candidacy for president. (Pence at one point said that Kaine had "whipped out that Mexican thing again".)

Pence denied Trump's oft-stated stated admiration for Vladimir Putin. He denied Trump's blase stance on nuclear proliferation. All easily disproved of; but it's a debate, so: style wins, and the live-tracking focus groups loved it.

The most illuminating moment came when Pence accused Clinton and Kaine of running an “insult-driven campaign”.

It's worth taking a moment to let that sink in: the running-mate of Donald Trump, the Trump who calls Clinton “Crooked Hillary” and erstwhile rival senator Marco Rubio “Little Marco”, who calls liberal senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”, said with a straight face that it is Clinton, in fact, who is running the campaign driven by insults.

The illumination didn't come from the stage, though; it came from Trump himself, who was gleefully live-tweeting along. Almost at exactly the same moment that poor Kaine was trying to deal with the dose of pure freebase chutzpah that Pence had just administered in claiming that in fact it was Clinton who ran the "insult-driven campaign", Trump tweeted that Kaine “looks like an evil crook out of the Batman movies.” Forget post-truth; we're past even satire at this point. This is an episode of Black Mirror we all live in now.

To be honest though, Tuesday's debate won't really matter. Trump has been the main act all along; his debate last week with Clinton will have reached ten times the audience, maybe more.

Which is a shame, because Pence, if Trump were to win, would likely be the most powerful vice-president in history. When Ohio governor John Kasich turned the job of Trump's running-mate down after being approached by the Republican candidate’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr, Kasich's advisor told the press that he had been offered control over “foreign and domestic policy”— in other words, the job of President in all but name.

When Kasich’s advisor asked what Trump would therefore be doing, Trump Jr simply said: “making America great again.”

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.