Throughout the vice presidential debate on Tuesday night, Tim Kaine used the same tactic repeatedly: citing something terrible that Donald Trump has said and asking how Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, could possibly defend such a thing. At one point Pence, who kept his composure throughout, simply replied, “I’m happy to defend him.” The question is: How happy is is Pence, really? Can he look back on the debate as a success after he repeatedly lied in order to run interference for Trump?
Purely on the level of stagecraft, the evening was a win for Pence. The Indiana governor is a much better dissembler than Trump because, as a professional politician, he doesn’t get personally entangled with the issues he’s disputing and instead argues his case with the aplomb of a lawyer. In fact, Pence has enjoyed something of a free ride precisely because the man at the top of the ticket is so outrageous. His own very extreme positions on LGBT rights and gender politics (such as his view that the Disney film Mulan is feminist propaganda) get largely glossed over.
But even though Pence delivered a polished performance, there was one striking similarity with Trump’s earlier debate performance: He told a lot of lies. That’s the position Trump has put him. To defend his party’s nominee, Pence must lie; but to defend his own honor, he must tell the truth—thereby betraying his party’s nominee.
On Trump’s position on nuclear proliferation
Kaine: “More nations should get nuclear weapons, try to defend that.”
Pence: “He never said that.”
Kaine: “I cannot believe that Governor Pence would sit here and defend his running mate’s claim that we should create a deportation force to—so that they’ll all be gone.”
Pence: “We have a deportation force. It is called Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. And the union for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for the first time in their history endorsed Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States of America.”
Kaine: “So you like the 16 million deportations?”
Pence: “Senator, that is nonsense.”
On nuclear proliferation, again
Kaine: “Donald Trump believes that the world will be safer if more nations have nuclear weapons. He’s said Saudi Arabia should get them, Japan should get them, Korea should get them. And when he was confronted with this, and told, wait a minute, terrorists could get those, proliferation could lead to nuclear war, here’s what Donald Trump said, and I quote: ‘Go ahead, folks, enjoy yourselves.’ I’d love to hear Governor Pence tell me what’s so enjoyable or comical about nuclear war.”
Pence: “Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”
Kaine: “Well, I’m going to see if you can defend any of it.”
On Hillary Clinton’s emails
Kaine: “The investigation concluded that not one reasonable prosecutor would take any additional steps. You do not get to decide that the rights and wrongs of this. We have a justice system that does that. A Republican FBI director did an investigation and concluded—”
Pence: “That is absolutely false.”
What unites all these exchanges is that Kaine was being accurate and often summing up either the facts of the case or Trump’s own words, while Pence responded with a straight-out denial of the facts.
Trump has a way of tarnishing almost everyone around him because to work with him, they have to defend the indefensible. And Pence, as his running mate, is his chief defender. He did a good job of putting a reassuring, mainstream face on Trump’s extremism; it’s easy to imagine that his performance will greatly please the Republican base. But if politicians are measured by their honesty—which may be asking for too much these days—then Pence destroyed his reputation tonight.