In Tuesday's vice presidential debate, Republican nominee Mike Pence did an effective job of challenging Hillary Clinton's record and articulating traditional Republican principles. It was a far defter and more disciplined performance than Donald Trump turned in at his disastrous debate with Hillary Clinton last week. Not for the first time, many Republicans must have wished that the positions on their ticket were reversed.
The problem for Pence, and it's an insoluble one, was that he had no reply for the argument with which his Democratic opponent Tim Kaine relentlessly — even monotonously — pummeled him: that he is yoked together on a ticket with a presidential candidate who traffics in insults, has made reckless proposals and can't be trusted to represent U.S. interests on the world's stage.
Kaine telegraphed that line of attack in his answer to the first question of the debate, which asked the candidates about their qualifications to assume the presidency if necessary. He turned it into an expression of alarm about the possibility that Trump might be elected: "We trust Hillary Clinton, my wife and I, and we trust her with the most important thing in our life. We have a son deployed overseas in the Marine Corps right now. We trust Hillary Clinton as president and commander in chief, but the thought of Donald Trump as commander in chief scares us to death."
Much of Kaine's presentation was essentially a variation on that theme, though the Virginia senator did score some other points, especially toward the end of the debate. He effectively contrasted his (and Clinton's) positions on immigration and racial bias in policing with those of the Trump-Pence ticket and, in answer to a question about the conflict between his religious faith and political actions, made a powerful defense of abortion rights. ("We can encourage people to support life. Of course we can. But why don't you trust women? Why doesn't Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for themselves?")
Yet clearly Kaine's prime directive was to paint Trump as unacceptable, a mission he pursued so relentlessly that Pence complained, with some fairness, of "the avalanche of insults coming out of Sen. Kaine."
Unfortunately for Pence, most of what Kaine said about Trump was accurate.
Trump did question the American citizenship of the nation's first black president and still hasn't apologized for his birtherism binge. Trump did suggest that it might not be a problem if other nations acquired nuclear weapons. (PolitiFact rated Pence's defense of Trump on this point "mostly false.") Trump did claim that a judge of Mexican ancestry couldn't adjudicate a case fairly because of his ancestry. Trump did say that Mexican immigrants were rapists (though he allowed that "some, I assume, are good people"). Trump did say women who have abortions should be punished (though he later backtracked). Finally, Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a stronger leader than President Obama (as has Pence).
Pence delivered a polished performance in Tuesday's debate, but even he could not defend the indefensible.