Post-Veep Debate Wisdom (Not Much)

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


There was no knockout in the Vice Presidential debate. It didn’t move the electoral needle much—if at all. GOP nominee Governor Mike Pence scored the most points on style, but Senator Tim Kaine probably edged him on substance points. However, from the start, this campaign has been more about style than substance.

Governor Pence’s performance was certainly poised and assertive; after all, in another life, Pence was a radio host. He was also, his wife proudly reminded us, captain of his high school debate team. And all that training showed. But Pence’s skills may have inadvertently underscored how bad—and unprepared—Donald Trump was in the first Presidential debate.

Senator Kaine seemed to be trying too hard to overcome his reputation as being too soft, too much of a nice guy. He certainly didn’t make Hillary Clinton look bad by comparison. But Kaine’s newly-minted attack dog persona could have been part of the Clinton campaign’s game plan: Forget Mr. Nice Guy and just throw sludge at Trump and Pence and see what sticks.

Governor Pence calmly and resolutely denied that Donald Trump said things that Donald Trump actually said. What Pence probably wanted to say was that Trump was just blustering and didn’t really mean those nasty things about deporting all undocumented immigrants and punishing women who sought abortions. But that would be risking hard right support—now and in Pence’s political future.

The post-debate spin made it clear that this debate did more for Pence than for Trump. Actually, this was less of a debate than a parallel (or, more accurately, overlapping) compendium of competing talking points. Pence made it clear that Hillary Clinton is the worst person in the world, while Kaine made the case that Donald Trump is crazy and dangerous.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that Kaine did not underscore the opposition to Trump among many Republican national security leaders. The Clinton campaign must walk a tightrope, wooing Reagan-Bush voters, while seeking to motivate the Bernie Sanders base and move some undecided voters. The anti-Trump mandarins will probably be featured prominently in mailings and ads directed to old-line Republican voters in the closing weeks of the campaign.

Like most vice presidential debates, this one promises to be inconsequential in term of the outcome of the November election. Lots of Republicans will probably wish that Pence were their party’s current standard bearer, but he isn’t. Some pundits say this performance was Pence’s audition for the GOP’s 2020 Presidential nomination, but that’s a long way off and this debate will have faded into obscurity. Probably very soon, if Hurricane Matthew continues its horrible march.

In the end, there were no notable moments or memorable lines, just the predictable back-and-forth from two candidates, fighting for a job the late Nelson Rockefeller derided as “stand-by equipment,” towing their party lines.

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