(Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect.
The opinions expressed here are his own.)
By Harold Meyerson
Oct 5 After going through a week reminiscent of
Napoleon's at Waterloo, Republican presidential nominee Donald
Trump will likely claim that Indiana Governor Mike Pence's
performance in Tuesday's vice-presidential debate gave a boost
to their campaign.
That would be overstating it.
The debate probably changed few votes in the 2016
presidential election. The question is whether it will change
any votes in the 2020 contest.
In this year's race, the debate was something of a wash.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential
nominee, came across like an over-caffeinated prosecutorial
chipmunk - interrupting at every occasion. And at moments that
weren't occasions at all.
A gentle soul who's uncomfortable in the attack-dog role
that the Clinton campaign has assigned him, Kaine plainly
overcompensated by piping up whenever Pence sought to evade
debate moderator Elaine Quijano's questions.
And because Pence spent the evening evading, Kaine spent the
evening interrupting. Though at the start, the interruptions
actually preceded the evasions, and often interrupted Quijano's
interjections as well.
Pence surely had the better podium manner (no great
achievement), even if his response to all Kaine's and Quijano's
questions about the true man of the hour - Trump - was to change
the subject. Or, if pressed, to deny that Trump had said what,
in fact, Trump had said.
When the 10-second clips are aired and re-aired, Kaine's
attacks on Trump and Pence's non-responses will redound mildly
to Clinton's advantage.
But what does the debate tell us about the future of both
parties? Pence was surely playing to the GOP's religious right
on Tuesday, with his anti-choice religiosity.
In that sense, he was trying to supplant Texas Senator Ted
Cruz as the Holy Rollers' favorite son in the 2020 Republican
primaries. (I'm assuming, of course, that Trump will not be
running for his second term.)
Pence would bring some clear advantages to this contest.
Unlike Cruz, Pence didn't desert the party's nominee (though
Cruz came slinking back last week and finally endorsed Trump).
Pence hasn't waged a scorched-earth war against the Republican
leadership. He doesn't bear a disquieting resemblance to Bela
Lugosi. For all these reasons, Pence will likely be the
religious right's candidate to take on President Hillary Clinton
Should Pence become the nominee, however, the GOP
standard-bearer would likely only widen the already-yawning gap
between Republicans and a majority of the American electorate.
The affirmation of traditional right-wing positions that Pence
delivered last night - against progressive taxation and all
regulation, against a woman's right to choose - would yield the
party precious little support among millennials, who will be by
far the largest age group in the 2020 electorate.
As for Kaine, it's hard to think of any wing of the
Democratic Party that would flock to him as a future standard
bearer after last night's gravitas-free performance. It's
increasingly unclear why Clinton chose him to be her running
mate, because that apparently meant miscasting him as her
In both his convention speech and his debate performance,
Kaine has shown himself not up to the task. Some alternatives to
Kaine - Labor Secretary Tom Perez comes to mind - would clearly
have been better suited to the role. Perez would also have been
better suited to help Clinton win more support from the one
constituency that she most needs to do better: millennials. Many
still don't see Clinton as signifying any change or embodying
the values that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders championed.
Kaine is a man of many virtues, and certainly could step
into the presidency if he had to. But as a candidate and as a
politician able to speak to younger voters and the Sanderistas -
that is, the future of the Democratic Party - he's been
Meanwhile, Quijano jumped around, one topic to another,
almost as manically as Kaine. Moderating is no easy job, but it
must be said that Quijano shaped an uncommonly disjointed
More important, both her questions on the economy - still
the American public's No. 1 concern - focused on the debt and
balancing the budget. At a time when the disabling effects of
economic inequality and the need for greater public investment
in infrastructure are belatedly receiving the recognition they
deserve - and when the candidates' differences on these and
other economic issues are vast - the size of the debt was hardly
the topic on which the public needed to hear from the
Between Quijano's topic-hopping, Kaine's interruptions and
Pence's evasions, the debate flashed by as cacophonously and at
times as incomprehensibly as a game of pinball.
Despite all the clamor, it was resoundingly clear by
evening's end that Kaine is not the Democrats' future leader,
and Pence, while he could be the Republicans', is not likely to