FARMVILLE, Va. – The first and last vice presidential debate of 2016 was not just a clash of candidates, but a clash of realities – and of two theories about how media and politics work. That was obvious from the first time, in his first answer, that Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence accused Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., of running “an insult-driven campaign.” It was clearer halfway through the debate, when Kaine said that Pence’s running mate Donald Trump “didn’t know that Russia had invaded the Crimea.”
“Oh, that’s nonsense,” Pence said.
“He was on a TV show a couple months back,” Kaine responded, “and he said, ‘I’ll guarantee you this, Russia’s not going into the Ukraine.’ And he had to be reminded that they had gone into the Crimea two years before.”
“He knew that,” Pence said.
Kaine was correct. In August, Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Russia was “not going to go into Ukraine.” When reminded that Russia had already annexed Crimea and occupied other parts of its neighbor’s territory, Trump averred that “he’s there in a certain way” and barreled ahead. It was one of dozens of record-scratch moments in Trump’s treacherous August, when he temporarily seemed to slip from striking distance of Hillary Clinton.
Kaine’s apparent bet was that voters would care. Pence’s was that they wouldn’t. More effectively than any Trump surrogate up to now, Pence simply denied – and denied, and denied, and denied – that someone as essentially good as Donald Trump could hold the views that cameras had recorded him holding.
For Pence, it was a long but easy bet on how the few gettable voters in the atomized media environment of 2016 would make their choice. For more than a year, political reporters have marveled at Trump’s ability to defy the usual gravity of campaigning. Comments that would destroy candidates for lower offices did not stop him from winning the Republican nomination. His policy flip-flops, the kind that Trump’s rivals spent their careers carefully avoiding, would dominate the news. The voters packing into Trumps rallies simply did not care.
Those voters have not been numerous enough to give Trump a lead over Clinton. In polling heading into the debate, the Democratic nominee was running about as far ahead of Trump as President Barack Obama was running ahead of Mitt Romney at the same point in 2012.
But Clinton is less popular and less trusted than Obama was then, and Pence’s most shameless answers imagine a world where the voters who do not intend to vote Clinton will begin to think like Trump voters. Not just to vote for Trump – to admire his business and ignore his problems the way that Trump’s base and late-deciding Republicans have decided to.
In doing so, Pence drew not just on Trump’s rhetoric, but on the tactics of his political idol Ronald Reagan.
Kaine did not get, or take, as many opportunities as Democrats had wanted to attack Pence on his record. (To the amazement of LGBT groups, Pence was never asked about the religious freedom bill his state had passed in a hurry and that had backfired with business groups.)
Kaine made one real attempt to grind down Pence over his record as a conservative leader in the House of Representatives. “When Congressman Pence was in Congress, he was the chief cheerleader for the privatization of Social Security,” he said. “Even after President Bush stopped pushing for it, Congressman Pence kept pushing for it.”
“There they go again,” said Pence, pausing as if giving the audience at home some time to cheer. “All Donald Trump and I have said about Social Security is we’re going to meet our obligations to our seniors. That’s it.”
That was not just false – it harked back to a Reagan answer, “there you go again,” that has entered the pantheon of great debate moments. But Reagan and President Jimmy Carter were having basically the same fight, with the same asymmetry of facts.
“Governor Reagan, as a matter of fact, began his political career campaigning around this nation against Medicare,” Carter said.
“There you go again,” Reagan said. “When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation.”
Carter was right. In 1961, Reagan burst into conservative politics with an LP titled “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine.” He had opposed Medicare; there had been no alternative legislation.
But in the fullness of history, “there you go again” is remembered as a debate winner. The 2005 fight to partially privatize Social Security, the sort of campaign Democrats warned tediously about in every election, is largely forgotten.
That sort of happy amnesia helped Trump at every stage of his Republican primary campaign. To their dismay, Republicans backing his rivals or funding anti-Trump super PACs watched as old Trump quotes and positions, like gun control or a surtax on the very wealthy, made no impact with primary voters. On Tuesday night, Pence tried to convert more voters into amnesiacs.
In one of very few common threads from Farmville and the first Trump-Clinton debate, the fact that Kaine kept repeating Trump’s old quotes, and stock lines about them, was spun to show that Trump told-it-like-it-was and the Democrats were slippery.
There was only anecdotal evidence suggesting that this worked. The Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who was livetweeting one focus group’s reaction, insisted that it was brushing off Kaine’s attacks on Trump. “Tim Kaine is trying to use Donald Trump’s own words, but the hits aren’t landing because my group thinks they’re out of context,” he tweeted.
That was exactly how Trump’s campaign wanted viewers to think. In the post-debate spin room, after praising Pence, they tried to move the ball on the other Republican belief about Trump – that whatever he says, responsible Republicans like them would control his administration. Pence had spent the debate describing an approach to Syria, with a safe zone enforced by American troops, that bore no resemblance to Trump’s.
Two Republican members of the House, which is expected to remain Republican even if Trump loses the election, confidently brushed off the suggestion that this would be a problem. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., pivoted to how Trump and Pence shared a “traditional notion of deterrence.” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, denied that there was much of a discrepancy at all, and praised Trump for picking a conservative leader instead of a “clone” of himself.
“Listen, I personally didn’t hear the differences,” Hensarling said. “I think they are both committed to rebuilding our national defenses and to ending a humanitarian crisis.” Asked which approach he favored, Hensarling demurred. “Listen, you’re going to have to talk to one of the foreign policy experts. Talk to me about financial services; I’m the chairman of the Financial Services Committee.”
This was how Republicans in Congress tended to react to Trump. Now in recess, they no longer have to field annoying hallway questions from reporters about the latest gaffe. Whatever his faults, Trump has five fingers on his right hand that can grip a pen and sign Republican-passed legislation and Republican-backed executive orders to undo the work of the Obama administration.
That concept of a Trump presidency may be less popular than Republicans think. (Obama’s approval rating is comparable to Reagan’s in 1988.) That, too, is a function of how the parties see the media landscape, and how they make their arguments. In the moment, interrupting Pence when he thought the Republican was dissembling about Trump or Clinton, Kaine had a hot style that narrowly lost with pundits and focus groups. In the long run, Pence made multiple arguments that would be contradicted by old quotes and old video.
Sixteen years ago, in a moment that still weighs on Democrats, the fact-check postgame had proved devastating. Al Gore was seen as the winner of the first debate with George W. Bush. Bush’s campaign quickly described Gore’s performance as “lies and sighs” and forced a media conversation about two exaggerations Gore had made about a visit to a school and a tour of wildfire damage. “He seems not to have that internal mechanism that often saved Nixon from himself,” the pundits Jules Witcover and Jack Germond wrote of Gore.
Democrats have searched, mostly in vain, for a chance to run this same play on a Republican candidate. Pence gave them more material for it than they even expected.
What neither party knows, in 2016, is who is listening and who will care.