Mike Pence 'won' the debate by pretending Donald Trump doesn't exist

Mike Pence and Donald TrumpSteve Pope/Getty ImagesMike Pence and Donald Trump.

National Review editor Rich Lowry summed up what I thought were the most important exchanges of the debate in one tweet.

“Pence shakes his head in incredulity every time Kaine quotes things that Trump has said,” he wrote.

Mike Pence did his incredulous head shake when confronted with Donald Trump’s insulting rhetoric (Mexicans are “rapists”; women are “pigs”) and when confronted with Trump’s policy ideas (NATO is “obsolete”; it’s fine if the Saudis get nukes; women should be punished for having abortions).

Pence even sketched out a confrontational policy toward Russia that is totally out of step with his running mate’s conciliatory statements about Russia and personal praise for Vladimir Putin.

It was basically a “Jedi Mind Trick” debate strategy, (“this is not the unhinged, bigoted nominee you are looking for”) and we’ll see if it works.

One potential problem with Pence’s strategy is that some of the Trump comments he treated as preposterous were widely covered, and should be memorable to the sort of voter who chooses to spend a Tuesday night watching a vice presidential debate.

I’d watch for some Democratic ads that cut together Trump’s outrageous statements with video of Pence ruefully shaking his head.

Another potential problem is that the emerging conventional wisdom after the debate seems to be that Pence greatly outperformed Donald Trump, and that he did so by declining to defend Trump, acting like he was running his own candidacy, and even setting his own policies, as on Russia.

While CNN’s instant poll found a narrow Pence victory in the debate (despite a somewhat Democratic-leaning sample), it found respondents thought Kaine did better defending his running mate than Pence, by a margin of 58% to 35%.

Being upstaged and ignored is not something to which Trump typically responds well.

Watch for Democrats to propagate the message that Pence threw Trump under the bus to set himself up for a 2020 presidential run, hoping to get Trump to resent Pence. Here’s Clinton’s campaign itself, already on that:

Kaine interrupted a lot and was frankly kind of annoying. While Trump is the candidate with the reality-show background, you might say Kaine did not come to the debate to make friends.

Kaine came in with a ton of opposition research about Trump to dump on the table and he did it, even if doing so required talking over Pence or moderator Elaine Quijano. This didn’t make Kaine seem likable, but it did advance the Clinton campaign’s message.

Kaine’s aggression also induced a memorable gaffe, getting Pence to rebuke him with “you whipped out that Mexican thing again.”

All of which is to say, unlike Pence, Kaine executed a strategy whose clear aim was to benefit his running mate.

My guess is this debate, like most vice presidential debates, will matter very little. Unless Trump gets mad that he was outshone by his maximally bland running mate, which could further interfere with his Zen going into presidential debate No. 2.

This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.

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