The Oct. 4 televised debate between the two running mates, Democrat Tim Kaine (aged 58) and Republican Mike Pence (aged 57), might be affecting how the election campaign unfolds more than is typical for vice-presidential debates. This can be explained primarily by the fact that the two presidential candidates are longer in the tooth than any in US history; plus there are Clinton’s health troubles and Trump’s problems with the stance taken against him by the political establishment. No matter which one of them is elected, that vice president might find himself playing a role far beyond the merely ceremonial, not to mention the strong possibility that that office-holder might even end up in the Oval Office ahead of schedule. Hence the elite’s increased interest in the figures of Tim Kaine and Mike Pence.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took their choice of second-in-command very carefully, although it is obvious that their selections were greatly influenced by the party machines behind the candidates, which are seeking to counteract the «revolution against the system» that is playing out in the backdrop of the current presidential campaign.
In their most salient features the vice-presidential contenders look like mirror images of one another. Both are senior party leaders, held important positions on foreign-policy committees during their tenures in Congress, and come from conservative Irish Catholic families. But there the resemblance ends: Kaine remained a Catholic with close ties to the Jesuits, while Pence became a Protestant evangelical. Pence is a more dependable standard-bearer for traditional values and is one of the biggest names in the Tea Party, while in his voting record Kaine has regularly «sacrificed his personal principles» for the sake of his party’s interests (when it comes to the issue of abortion, the LGBT community, etc.).
The debates have demonstrated that the Republican Party has clearly made the better choice. Most significantly – Kaine came across as merely a pale imitation of Hillary Clinton, adding nothing to what she already brings to the table, while Pence’s demeanor and statements rounded Trump out and compensated for his weaknesses. Kaine seemed highly agitated and kept trying to take personal digs at his rival, but he did so without Clinton’s inherent artistry and very likely managed to do nothing but irritate the viewers. Unlike Clinton, he did not enjoy the support of the moderator – Elaine Quijano in this case – even managing to steamroller right over her.
Pence kept his cool and proved the more adroit communicator. Surprisingly, even CNN, whose audience leans 41% Democratic and only 30% Republican, declared Pence the clear victor based on viewer voting, with 48% versus the 42% who favored Kaine. This edge was even more pronounced in every other poll.
In an effort to diminish the negative effects from their candidate’s defeat, the Democrat-friendly media chose to focus on the daylight between Pence and Trump, claiming that their views diverge significantly and that Pence is more concerned about his own agenda than defending Trump’s positions. But it is doubtful that anything he said had not been previously approved by Trump. This is more likely a version of the «good cop – bad cop» routine. Throughout the debate Pence repeatedly pledged his full loyalty to Trump and showed that he was proud to work at his side.
The birth of a new political star is being discussed in the US, with predictions that Pence will be the Republican nominee in 2020. This fact alone encourages a closer look at the governor of Indiana, especially concerning his pronouncements on Russia. At first glance they land some cruel blows, going far beyond anything Donald Trump has yet said.
The Republicans obviously decided to shore up their position in one area where the Democrats particularly love to attack Trump by accusing him of «excessive deference» toward Russia. And in accordance with the laws of this political genre, they have shifted full responsibility onto the Democrats for the problems associated with «Moscow’s behavior». Pence in particular reminded everyone that it was Hillary Clinton who upon becoming secretary of state made it a top priority to «reset» the US relationship with Russia. After that, according to Pence, the Russians began «dictating terms to the United States». The US is the greatest country on earth, more powerful than Russia, but it is a «shameful fact» that «Putin is a stronger leader than Obama». And that is far from praise, but rather «an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama». Pence insisted that «we have got to begin to lean into this [Russia] with strong, broad-shouldered American leadership».
There is not much here that is new. Back in early September, defending Trump’s stance toward Russia on CNN, Pence stated, «I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country. And that’s going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president». Responding to Pence, Kaine reframed the conversation in terms of patriotism. Claiming on CBS that «saying that Putin is a better leader than President Obama – I think it just betrays an irrationality and a hostility toward the president that is unpatriotic».
Of course Pence’s statements during the TV debate could be attributed to the Republican reluctance to concede the «patriotism card» to the Democrats, but he made a number of other comments that must surely prompt a certain degree of anxiety.
For example, Pence called for the deployment of a missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland «which Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pulled back on out of not wanting to offend the Russians back in 2009». He also said that if the Russian air strikes in Syria continue, «the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime». Pence’s proposal to introduce a no-fly zone in Syria is also fraught with great risk, as it would greatly increase the likelihood of an armed clash between American and Russian or Syrian forces.
But let us not leap to the conclusion that Pence’s tough talk indicates a shift in the Republican duo’s foreign-policy platform toward greater confrontation with Russia. One can’t rule out that this is little but a pre-election maneuver. Kaine, for example, who was clearly planning to attack his opponent on the subject of Russia, was taken aback upon hearing this tirade.
But it’s too early to weigh in on how much Pence’s success during the vice-presidential debate will help Trump’s chances of victory. According to the polls, Trump is once again trailing Clinton – he has been unable to withstand her constant jabs and is now the subject of some Mickey-Mouse investigations. When interacting with Hillary in the future, Trump would do well to take his cue from Pence’s ability to keep his cool and refrain from acrimony. But at least the Hoosier’s bold political maneuvering has bailed Trump out a bit. Now the Republican candidate does not need to disown his previous statements about Russia, which Pence has already helped to «spin».
Trump is merely introducing an element of uncertainty into his pronouncements on the «Russian issue»: he is refusing to talk about Putin in terms of «love and hate,» which leaves room for significant improvement – as well as confrontation – in the US relationship with Moscow. Which, in fact, is the line he’s always held. His opponents are doing their best to attribute to him a willingness to compromise US interests, but this is merely a common tactic in political battles. Russia has long understood this and thus is preparing itself to engage with the winner, whoever that may be.