The VP Debate Was Better, But There’s a Catch

The actual policies expressed were probably even worse than Trump and Clinton in round 1.

If the first presidential debate was a clear victory for Clinton–at least in terms of style and skill–the vice presidential debate was the opposite.

Keeping Up Appearances

Last night, Governor Mike Pence seemed to outcompete Senator Tim Kaine on virtually every superficial metric. He was more polite (and interrupted less), yet his attacks were more effective. He stayed on message, without seeming utterly scripted (as Kaine did at times). And while many of the things he said were not actually true, all of them would probably seem plausible to the casual observer. To my ear, Pence managed to sound measured and reasonable, even while advocating policies that are entirely unreasonable. As a matter of performance alone, it was impressive–especially when compared to Trump’s last week.

Kaine’s performance was merely adequate. He interrupted frequently, which grew a bit tiresome, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as Trump in this regard. Perhaps the most noticeable flaw was that, on multiple occasions, Kaine offered arguments or defenses that Pence had already anticipated and addressed. This gave the debate a disjointed feel at times, as if one of the participants was spending too much time reading his notes and not enough time actually listening to his opponent’s words. Still, on the whole, Kaine at least came off as competent and professional. Like Pence, Kaine also seemed to be a real human being–which neither Trump nor Clinton have mastered thus far.

All things considered, it seems likely that many Americans were wishing the order of both tickets were flipped. Last night’s debate was civil and appeared to involve some substance. No doubt the average American would have considerably less fear over an electoral match-up between Pence and Kaine than they do under the current reality.

Which is ironic. Because from a policy perspective, the VP debate was completely terrifying.

Substantially Terrifying

The problem with Pence is that he really does seem to be a conventional Republican politician, in a way that Donald Trump is not. This meant he was considerably more polished, and he was able to make much more coherent attacks than Trump did (particularly about the “basket of deplorables” comment and the Clinton Foundation). This was a welcome development, given that meaningful criticism of Clinton’s record in primetime is a very scarce commodity.

Unfortunately, Pence also brought the baggage of a conventional Republican politician. This was especially noticeable and frankly, deplorable, on the question of foreign policy.

Here, Pence managed to be simultaneously more persuasive and more horrifying. He could be convincing because his arguments were typically internally consistent–a low bar Trump doesn’t always clear. Pence was also alarming, however, because the probable outcomes implied by his policies are a further escalation of US intervention in the Middle East and even higher tensions with Russia.

In a preposterously leading question on Syria, Pence pivoted to how Hillary Clinton had shown weakness by trying too much diplomacy with the Russians. Yep. Pence was attacking Hillary for not being hawkish enough on foreign policy. So help us

QUIJANO [moderator]: I want to turn now to Syria. Two hundred fifty thousand people, 100,000 of them children, are under siege in Aleppo, Syria. Bunker buster bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons are being dropped on them by Russian and Syrian militaries. Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale, Governor Pence?

PENCE: The United States of America needs to begin to exercise strong leadership to protect the vulnerable citizens and over 100,000 children in Aleppo. Hillary Clinton’s top priority when she became secretary of state was the Russian reset, the Russians reset. After the Russian reset, the Russians invaded Ukraine and took over Crimea.

And the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America — the greatest nation on Earth — just withdraws from talks about a cease-fire while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria while he marshals the forces and begins — look, we have got to begin to lean into this with strong, broad-shouldered American leadership.

In Pence’s story, Hillary was just working too hard for peace. So the dastardly Russians got away with stealing a country. Also, it’s worth noting that the only reason a US leader would object to the Russians putting a missile defense system in Syria, is if they had an active interest in bombing it. This is all bad news.

Elsewhere, Pence repeated the canard about Iranian ransom payments, while Kaine had to pretend Clinton was instrumental to the Iran Deal, which emerged years after her resignation. Pence also took the standard anti-Iran / pro-Israel line that the Iranians are now closer to a nuclear weapon, because the Iran Deal only lasts 15 years, not in perpetuity.

But as is to be expected, the worst issue of the night was something both candidates wholeheartedly agree on. Namely, the need for a safe zone in Syria–> which means a no-fly zone –> which means an active air campaign against Syrian and possibly Russian troops in Syria. Here was Pence, confidently advocating a crazy position:

But about Aleppo and about Syria, I truly do believe that what America ought to do right now is immediately establish safe zones, so that families and vulnerable families with children can move out of those areas, work with our Arab partners, real time, right now, to make that happen.

And secondly, I just have to tell you that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength. And if Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say, to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo.

And here was Kaine, dutifully agreeing:

KAINE: Hillary and I also agree that the establishment of humanitarian zones in northern Syria with the provision of international human aid, consistent with the U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed in February 2014, would be a very, very good idea.

We should be clear about what is really being discussed here. The US is considering actively engaging in armed hostilities against Russia in Syria. And the purpose, ostensibly, is to prevent the civilian loss of life currently being caused by the Russian / Syrian aerial bombings of Al Nusra, a terrorist organization with close links to Al Qaeda. Here is a classic case of US hypocrisy. Throughout the Obama Administration, of course, the US has administered a unilateral drone assassination campaign to kill Al Qaeda and associated forces (like Al Nusra, rebranding aside), and killed numerous civilians. The US is also killing Syrian civilians with its bombings elsewhere. But now, because the Russians are doing the same thing–just in one country instead of many–the US is apparently prepared to start an armed conflict with the second largest nuclear power in the world.

And in 2016, both major parties are totally on board with that concept.

As it turns out, this is the rare area where Trump’s unpredictability offers the small glimmer of hope. We have every reason to believe that Hillary Clinton would try to implement the safe zone policy if elected. With Trump, there’s a minute chance he would not–if only for the sake of being a contrarian.

That possibility didn’t exist in the arguments offered by Pence. And so the whole evening can probably be summed up as follows.

The debate was better, but the actual policies were dramatically worse.

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