The vice-presidential debate Tuesday night was rated by some commentators as generating more heat than light. At times, that certainly seemed true when watching Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence hurl charges at each other, insert practiced digs and cut each other off.
A good measure of the debate was brilliantly captured by this tweet from GQ Magazine featuring a closed-captioned frame of moderator Elaine Quijano.
— GQ Magazine (@GQMagazine) October 5, 2016
But it pays to read the transcript and remind yourself that this debate did raise some points of real consequence about the economy, race relations and policing, immigration, reproductive rights, and foreign policy. It is true that this debate did not address much of what we would expect in a real "people's debate" that focused on the real concerns of struggling Americans. But there were ample moments of real contrast between the America that works for all people that is promised by Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign and the mix of alt-right nationalism and tea-party policies that would surely be ushered into Republican Donald Trump's administration.
Here are a few:
● On wages, Kaine pointed out that while Clinton supports raising the minimum wage, Trump has indeed said that wages are too high for American companies to be competitive, and Pence has been a "one-man bulwark against minimum wage increases" as both governor of Indiana and as a conservative leader in Congress before he became governor.
● Kaine said that the Clinton administration would "never, ever engage in a risky scheme to privatize Social Security," while pointing out that Trump embraced privatization (in a 2000 book, "The America We Deserve"). PolitiFact gave Kaine a "mostly false" for the implication that a Trump administration would embrace privatization. But here PolitiFact gets it wrong by omitting that Trump's admittedly vague statements about how he would restore Social Security's long-term solvency by economic growth alone – a statement no serious expert on Social Security finances on either side of the aisle believes – leaves a policy vacuum that would be likely filled by Pence's embrace of House Speaker Paul Ryan's plan for Social Security, which does include allowing Social Security trust funds to be diverted into private stock market accounts. In a word, privatization.
● Pence sounded less strident than Trump when talking about policing in African-American communities, leavening a reference for "law and order" with support for community policing. But then he undercut that attempt at moderation by saying that talk of implicit bias and institutional racism in policing "has got to stop" and echoed Trump's support of "stop-and-frisk" police practices that were ruled unconstitutional when they were practiced in New York City. The lessons learned in dozens of cities – that training police officers of all colors in recognizing implicit bias and how to use de-escalation strategies to prevent unnecessary use of force makes for safer neighborhoods and more safety for police – continue to be rejected by the Trump-Pence ticket, to the peril of not only people of color but the nation at large.
Kaine and Pence also reprised the well-known differences between the candidates at the top of the ticket on immigration, sparred on Clinton's foreign policy record as secretary of state, and highlighted a sharp contrast on reproductive rights, which Pence unapologetically opposes.
It was here that Pence left himself most vulnerable, not simply because of his faith-based stand against reproductive rights for women, but because his willingness to defend what he believes his Christian faith says about the immorality of abortion under any circumstances did not extend to what his Christian faith says about the immorality of Donald Trump.
Kaine kept pressing Pence to defend Trump's slurs against women, the disabled and people of color. He kept goading Pence into defending Trump's extreme use of the tax code to avoid paying taxes for the government he now seeks to lead. He referenced Trump's unethical business practices and the thousands of workers and vendors who have been stiffed by Trump's businesses over the years. He noted that because Trump has not released his tax returns, we have no evidence of Trump's charitable giving (but we do have a growing number of news stories about his abuse of the Trump Foundation). The Bible that Pence uses as the guide star for his political life contains denunciation after denunciation of people who abuse wealth for their own gain at the expense of those who do not have wealth or power.
After the debate, the spin room was full of pronouncements that Mike Pence won. But Pence himself had to know in his heart of hearts that he was being asked to defend the morally indefensible, and that never makes you a winner.