Here's where I'm supposed to argue that the pundit groupthink is all wrong and that Tim Kaine embarrassed Mike Pence (and Donald Trump) in last night's debate. But I agree with the pundits: Pence did his job more effectively than Kaine did, though it wasn't a blowout. And the public's reaction seems to bear that out.
I don't know who told Kaine to come out of the gate interrupting Pence -- you have to be ready to elbow your way into the discussion when debating Trump, because he's a verbal bully, but Pence was calm and playing by the rules, so why be the first rule-breaker? I agree with Joy Reid's assertion on MSNBC last night that this may have come off as ruder to female viewers -- eventually we had two men talking over a female moderator, though it was clear that Kaine was the first to go down that road. Not a good strategy.
But it's also true that Kaine put Pence on the spot regarding Trump's most embarrassing statements, and when Pence wasn't ducking the assertions, he was issuing denials of things that actually happened. I think there'll be Clinton ads contrasting those Pence denials with clips showing that Trump (or Pence) actually did say the awful things Pence insisted had never been said. But I don't think they'll be a major part of the Clinton strategy. The campaign's focus is on Trump, not Pence.
I don't agree with the emerging conventional wisdom that, as Chris Matthews said last night, Pence "made himself the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2020." The Republican front-runner for 2020 is probably some angry, underqualified blowhard -- Curt Schilling or one of the Duck Dynasty guys or Sheriff David Clarke. After twelve years of a Democrat in the White House, the rage addicts who gave us Trump are going to be feral -- they're not going to meekly accede to the guy who's "the next in line," especially if he was on a losing ticket in 2016. Remember, this year they might have gone for Ben Carson if Trump hasn't joined the race, and the conventional politician who ran strongest was bomb-thrower Ted Cruz. Pence is a right-wing extremist, but he postures as a reasonable man. GOP voters won't want that.
I'm telling you this even though I've said many times that after November the GOP will probably go back to being essentially the same party it always was, except a bit Trumpier. I still believe that, but only because the process of picking candidates in non-presidential races is still usually controlled by the Republican establishment. Not enough angry voters focus enough to rally around primary challengers to the Mitch McConnells and John McCains. But the hyperextended presidential campaign season gives rageoholic voters plenty of time to focus. They're going to want a brawler, and/or someone who's too pure to have been corrupted by service in the evil government. That won't be Pence.
But Pence was effective last night, and we shouldn't be surprised. He was a talk radio host in the 1990s. (I don't know why Kaine and his prep team thought interruptions would rattle someone an ex-radio pro.) And Republicans just have more self-righteous ready-made memes to fall back on in moments like this:
QUIJANO: Governor, yesterday, Mr. Trump said ... quote, "Putin has no respect for Hillary Clinton and no respect for Obama." Why do you think he'll respect a Trump- Pence administration?
PENCE: Strength. Plain and simple.... Donald Trump is a strong leader ... who is going to lead with American strength.
The American public often falls for empty right-wing bombast like that. Pence might have been a strong general-election candidate this year. But he's not enough of a rager to have won the primaries, and the same will probably be true four years from now.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog