The most interesting thing about Tim Kaine and Mike Pence is that they represent parties that no longer exist. Kaine is a moderate Democrat in a party hijacked by the Bernie Sanders left. Pence is an old-fashioned conservative in a party that has been hijacked by Donald Trump populism. Left to their own devices, they might have engaged in the civilized, well-informed, stultifying argument between the two parties that we’ve been seeing for years. But both were forced to focus most of their attention on the two heavyweight contenders, Hillary Clinton and Trump, and neither did a particularly good job of it—although Pence got the better of Kaine by being calmer, less intrusive, the exact opposite of his obnoxious ticket partner. Whoever told Kaine that he had to be aggressive, interrupt constantly and focus almost entirely on Trump’s assorted insanities gave him very bad advice.
But there were other things to learn in the Vice Presidential debate at Virginia’s Longwood University, and the most immediate was how stale the old political arguments have become. This was drilled home in the first twenty minutes of the debate, when Kaine and Pence took traditionally Democrat and Republican positions on the economy. Kaine: more “investment”—a brilliantly focus-grouped word—to build the economy. Pence: more tax breaks to liberate the economy. Both arguments creak with age and disingenuousness. Thirty years of experience have shown that tax breaks don’t stimulate anything except budget deficits. Fifty years of government attempts to expand the welfare state have proven inconclusive at best.
Are you bored yet? I suspect that most American were bludgeoned into a stupor by this endless conflict—and by the equally endless argument about American intervention overseas, and by the use of shopworn, abstract market-tested words. That is why voters turned to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016, for their entertainment value and the promise of yuuge spending on infrastructure programs, which everybody seems to like (except for traditional conservatives like Pence, who didn’t mention it once), and the hope that the craziness in the world wouldn’t impinge on America so much. Pence adhered closely to the old GOP orthodoxy of strength abroad, contradicting just about everything Trump has said about foreign policy. He even criticized Donald’s good buddy, Vladimir Putin, as “small and bullying.” Kaine didn’t have much to say about policy. He was too busy overdoing a good thing, the recitation of Trumpian goofs.
It occurred to me that it might be fun, and edifying, to watch a well-prepared politician with Trump’s positions debating Clinton. We saw a glimpse of it in the first debate when he hammered Clinton on trade—an issue where he is largely wrong, but devastatingly simple. We also saw a glimpse of it when Pence hit Clinton for calling the Charlotte shooting of a black man, who was probably armed and certainly uncooperative, by a black cop as an example of “implicit bias.” Kaine responded to this well, citing Senator Tim Scott, the African-American Republican from South Carolina, who gave a moving speech about all the times he’d been stopped for no reason. But Clinton’s claim of race bias had been wrong in Charlotte. That sort of racial broad-brushing could be easily refuted by a disciplined opponent.
We won’t be seeing such an opponent this year, of course. We will be seeing the sensationally damaged Trump—and while Kaine’s efforts to horse-collar Pence with The Tao of Trump grew tiring, they were not ineffective. Kaine was right: Pence didn’t make much of an effort to defend the guy—except to maintain that Trump had never said those things, which was not true. Finally, Pence waved the white flag, “He’s not a polished politician.” True enough: he is a polished demagogue.
If nothing else, the Kaine-Pence debate answered—for me, at least—a major question of this election year: Is Trump the beginning or the end of something? It seems clear, watching two conventional politicians grapple with each other, that the old arguments, and the old ways of arguing, have run their course. We may never again see anything like the conventional Obama-Romney debates of four years ago. Traditional Republicanism has been demolished by Trump. Traditional focus-tested rhetoric, the way Hillary Clinton speaks, has been demolished, too.
I’m not sure what the parties of the future, and their debates, will look like. It is possible that rudeness and spectacular lies will be the new normal. But it is also possible that a version of Mike Pence’s studied calm, and a new brace of policies that speak fresh sense to the American people, will be coming too.