I've not had a lot of use for Mike Pence since Donald Trump chose the Indiana governor to be his running mate. The Hoosier who describes himself as a "Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order," never seemed like a natural fit for the casino owner's ticket. In April, when Pence announced he would vote for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the GOP presidential primary, he cited Cruz's "knowledge of the Constitution." Now he's stumping for a candidate who thinks everything's negotiable.
Tuesday night's debate, however, cast Pence in a new light. He's the canny Christian conservative who understands that making the election about American decline under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama provides the only path for a Republican win.
Also, Pence has mastered that look of umbrage at Kaine's repeated efforts to tie the Hoosier to Trump's often ill-chosen rhetoric. The straight-and-narrow governor has this way of projecting his view that it's beneath critics to tie the GOP ticket to Trump's remarks because, well, everyone knows Trump will say anything. Over time Pence's posture could get old, but when you see it for the first time in a debate, it's convincing.
Many have criticized Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine for his frequent interruptions. But I think Kaine's biggest problem is that he treated the debate as if it were a word game, not a battle of ideas -- first you whack your opponent for something he or the nominee said in an effort to put the other team on the defensive, then you throw in some gotcha sound bites and you win. That approach might work well in a junior high debate, but it represents a problem that has plagued the 2016 election and sowed voter discontent. When network news shows devote days and weeks to the latest outrageous quote to pop out of Trump's undisciplined mouth, they have devolved from reporting important events to serving as game show referees.
To many Americans, the economy is stalled and our image abroad has soured. The threat of Islamist terrorism looms. American voters are anxious about their future -- and the sorry state of political discourse has done nothing to reassure them. Words matter, but voters care most about the thoughts behind them.
Exchanges between Kaine and Pence on Vladimir Putin highlight the great political disconnect. Kaine started it, when he said the GOP ticket loves Russia and, "These guys have praised Vladimir Putin as a great leader." PolitiFact reported that Kaine's statement was accurate: Trump gave Putin an A for leadership while Pence said, it's "inarguable that Vladamir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country."
But Kaine lost that round because he made it all about words -- what Trump said, what Pence said -- divorced from the reality that the thuggish Putin thinks he's stronger since Clinton pushed the Russian relations "reset" button. OK: Clinton speaks with sophistication about Russia, while Trump sometimes sounds as if he has a crush on its shirtless strongman. But Putin was undaunted by Clinton's accomplished vocabulary. That's what Pence understands and Kaine seems not to.