The vice presidential debate’s key question: Does Mike Pence know Donald Trump said those things?

I haven’t heard anything about it!
I haven’t heard anything about it!
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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“Did you work on that one a long time? That had a lot of really creative lines in it,” Indiana Governor Mike Pence sneered after Virginia Senator Tim Kaine delivered another scripted zinger about Donald Trump at this year’s debate for the two US vice presidential nominees.

“I’m going to see if you defend any of it,” Kaine replied. And Pence didn’t.

In fact, he spent most of the debate acting shocked when confronted with his running mate’s own words, despite their media ubiquity. It was the establishment GOP’s strategy for embracing Trump, writ large: Sorry we missed it, we were at the gym.

Though the chattering classes thought Pence’s measured stage presence outweighed Kaine’s frenetic performance, the substance of the debate—a boring tussle over the campaign’s existing fault lines—was clearly Pence’s unwillingness to defend Trump.

In a contest predicated on who could make their ticket look better, Pence was more at sea.

Kaine clearly wanted to remind the voting audiences of Trump’s insulting comments about Mexican immigrants being “criminals” and women being ugly, and did so with relish, as Pence shook his head.

When Kaine noted that Trump had mocked Senator John McCain, a decorated Vietnam war veteran, for being captured, Pence looked away.

On Trump’s refusal to share his tax returns with the public and the leaked documents that show him claiming more than $900 million in losses, Pence defended the principle of deducting business losses. But pressed on how he knew Trump had no financial conflicts of interest, he had no reply.

And, when asked, Pence laid out aggressive policies that often seemed to diverge from mainstream Trump.

Pence was downright aggressive about Russia, compared to Trump’s Russophilia. Pence denied that Trump had ever forgotten that Russia invaded Crimea (Trump had) and even denied his own assessment that Vladimir Putin was a stronger leader than Barack Obama (he said it).

It’s hard not to recall Peter denying Christ three times, except that would involve comparing Trump to Christ. But scripture did come up after Pence was pressed about Trump’s remarks that women who receive abortions should be punished. (Yes, he said that.) Pence denied the ticket would support such a policy. Kaine cited Luke 6:45, “for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” 

By the end of the night, a Kaine performance that may have seemed off-putting and intense in the early going may have begun to ring true to the audience: This is the honest exasperation of someone who can’t believe his opponent won’t acknowledge the world is round.