I didn’t mind the country losing its mind until it got boring. The Veep debates are best described as a view into the hell of being Vice President, but it’s better to think of them as alternate universes: what would this election be like if the people who are standing in second place were in the lead? The answer: dreadful.
If you want to skip ahead to the big two-fisted heart of the affair, Kaine interrupted and Pence lied. Kaine has no brake, and Pence has no scruples. The latter was much worse than the former, but it was hard to tell, since I was actively fighting the urge to punch myself into unconsciousness the entire time.
Overall, the debate was a nice metaphor for how law and rules work in America. The elites alternatively get to run over the moderator or lie, and neither suffer any penalty at all. One man was salty and the other grumpy and neither shone much and we all were made to watch, and that’s it. Everything else is embroidery.
How the moderator Elaine Quijano bore it, I do not know. Nothing good came out of these ninety minutes. The best of the night, Kaine, was full of fail and the worst, Pence, plowed ahead, a shark in a sea of lies. Fifty years from now, if I read an account of this debate in a textbook titled “Mansplain Car-wreck” I will nod in agreement, without hesitation. I was required to give 1.5 hours of my precious, sweet life to this blasted hellscape.
Have you ever quit caffeine? I haven’t, but I’m told it slows down the clock to paint-drying speed. That was the Veep debate. As the minutes rolled along in this “conversation,” I could feel my body’s cells dying, giving up the ghost to the void, and was envious of them. They could leave. I could not.
The text of the debate was and is easy to digest: a topic was suggested, one of the suits responded. If the speaker was Kaine, he brought up Trump’s abysmal record on just about anything and everything. Pence would then deny it, completely. If it was Pence talking, he gave standard Republican boilerplate dated 2008. Then Kaine would interrupt, a wet fish smacking on the stained glass window of the Indiana governor’s composure. Pence muttered through his talking points in a Stairmaster method, Kaine interrupted in the single most passive-aggressive manner, and like change in the dryer, this tumbling went on forever, and we had to listen to it.
Different factions of Americans give different accounts of our American national character. Old men and David Brooks-level dullards inform us of that our nation is a bastion of high-toned decency. The cynics describe our obscene thirst for blood and treasure. Almost nobody points out our national habit of making immense horse’s asses of ourselves, what H.L. Mencken called “the American lust for the hideous.” We saw that feature on display last night.
The questions were sleepy-eyed, pasted together by Maureen Dowd’s ghostwriter and whatever moldy remains of David Broder still exist. Instead of asking any recent questions about the Secretary — anything specific at all — they flipped through the usual poem of “Why do so many people distrust her? Is it because they have questions about her e-mails and the Clinton Foundation?” Easily dealt with, revealing nothing. Which was followed up by a very nice summer camp essay question about Trump and how the Very Serious People do not love him, which the voters in Ohio do not care about.
Kaine offered to raise the minimum wage to the dreary twelve per hour instead of the fifteen that would be necessary, and pitched the means-tested phrase about you’re-hired president versus you’re-fired president. Pence burbled out a line about the deficit and then promised to rebuild the military out of, I don’t know, coupons. Kaine claimed there were fifteen million new jobs, but the number is closer to ten million. Pence gave the lazy talking point about how we have the tiniest navy since WWI without mentioning our ships are badass metal war-gods that project force across time zones.
Kaine was mostly correct about the economy. Yet the closest either got to talking about post-Seventies wage stagnation was Pence’s “Honestly, Senator, you can roll out the numbers and the sunny side, but I got to tell you, people in Scranton know different. People in Fort Wayne, Indiana know different,” which he then added to later by blaming, as usual, brown people. Neither candidate could fully articulate the problem – our economic system is designed to screw the workers — but it lurked there always, much as Hurricane Matthew loomed over the Southern United States during the ten thousand subjective hours this debate took. Kaine got the closest, but he kept getting in his own way.
Even the golden freebies, when Pence informed Kaine “You whipped out that Mexican thing again” or when the Governor informed us he spent a few minutes per day on his knees, were not enough to redeem the banal melodrama before us. Nor was the undeniably suggestive and possibly sexy “We will work together in whatever roles we inhabit” line worth our speed. Dull, dull, dull. A good debate is either informative, entertaining, or persuasive. Ideally, some kind combination of all three. This managed to be none of the above.
When it comes to debates, the discussion of “he or she won” is fairly silly. The wiser observers hesitate to declare a winner, and there are reasons for this. Unless a single candidate truly drops the ball, choosing a victor is a needlessly Solomonic way to divide a complicated exchange. This was true of the Clinton-Sanders debates, for instance: “winner” doesn’t convey the nature of what happened accurately. Both candidates had strengths and faults, Bernie did better than expected, but nobody really came away with the belt. Most of the time it’s like that.
However, there are exceptions. Sometimes, nobody wins. Everyone comes away looking worse. In these situations, even if one of the combatants performs a little better than everybody else, it’s senseless to say they won, any more than anyone in Europe “won” The Great War.
That is what happened in the bizarre case of the Kaine-Pence duel. If Kaine won, as many commentators claimed, it was a Pyrrhic victory. I think less of him now than I did before, and he is estimable only in comparison with Pence, who has climbed higher than I thought possible on the great chain of boobery.
S.E. Cupp described Kaine as “surprisingly bad” despite having the easier job. He seemed petty, and couldn’t wait his turn. By contrast, Pence never soared above Irritated Police Commissioner. When Kaine interrupted for the five hundredth time, I began to bellow curses like the real society lady I am and shortly after began to kick the air with wild abandon. This did nothing to stop the talking men on screen.
Kaine’s jittery self-insertions would have taken the prize for memorable mistakes had it not been for the wall-to-wall deception of Pence, which was so obvious that you could have glimpsed it from space. Watching him try to gaslight Kaine and the American public about Trump’s bizarre fabrications would have been funny, if it wasn’t so disturbing, which surprisingly comes back around to being funny again: he was just so blatant about it. There was no romance to his lies. Time and again, Kaine’s plain factual recitations of Trump’s very public statements were treated as the half-cocked conspiracy theories of a Virginia schizophrenic.
It was like watching a man deny gravity or invent Scientology. I thought of Baghdad Bob, and the missing tanks. It made me wonder: was Pence a liar or a dunce? Was it more likely that he was an idiot or a total charlatan? Reasonably: why can’t it be both?
Pence could easily be a character in a Fifties weird tale or an early Stephen King story. It’s no great stretch to imagine him as a fictional protagonist: a morally-compromised lawyer who is approached by a mysterious rich guy to defend him in a trial, and halfway through realizes it’s the Devil that has hired him … but out of Indiana stick-tuitiveness he resolves to do the best job possible.
I say this because it seems clear to me that Pence cannot stand Trump. Patton Oswalt suggested that the Governor’s loathing for the Donald was on display, and I think he’s right. Pence’s ideal worlds are probably ranked as follows:
1) Pence is President
2) Reagan is President again, somehow
3) Cruz is President
500) Trump is President
I don’t have to wonder what Pence’s reaction would be to seeing Pride Day, because I watched it in his face when he defended Trump. The hidden, compartmentalized restraint of a professional politician who knows how to play the game was evident. This was a lawyer dutifully advocating for his client. Later, I expect Pence will spend secret hours screaming in his specially-constructed cork-lined soundproofed closet. There is no love for the Orangeman in those eyes.
Pence’s reality, where an eighth-rate Hoosier hack gets to be the tribune of the American people, hinted at the conservative movement’s plan to hoist themselves from the wreckage: pretend Trump never happened. Russia and Turkey have been getting by on the denial strategy for years. The Governor’s “We’ve seen an economy stifled by more taxes, more regulation, a war on coal and a failing healthcare reform come to be known as Obamacare” could have been written a year ago, and probably was, when they thought it would be Rubio or Sad Jeb.
Where Pence was successful – sort of — was pushing the idea that there would be a real adult in the Oval Office. But what a low bar! Indeed, there was an oddly comforting callback in the Governor of Indiana’s performance. To see such a classical right-wing drone on stage was reassuring, even to my Maoist heart: the hideous vampires had not all died out. Some of the night creatures had survived the purge.
What the Indiana Governor stood for was so seriously dead he couldn’t be there straightforwardly — he had to be doing this as a contrivance, acting as a kind of Hipster Republican, appropriating uncool fashions as the cutting edge. His ordinary, everyday right-wing monstrousness was quaint and homespun next to what I saw at the National Convention in Cleveland.
There Pence sat, a defender of the backwards Republican orthodoxy, fighting for the same old preservation of privilege for business and bros as if the Trumpenacht of 2015-2016 hadn’t happened, as if a generation of Heritage Foundation dipshits hadn’t been hilariously slaughtered, Samson-style, by the jawbone of an ass. A 19th-century Sioux-hunting cavalryman arriving at an American Indian Movement rally has a greater chance of being woke than Mike Pence does. Every sentence he spoke was dotted with liver spots. The line “We delivered $400 million in cash as a ransom payment for Americans held by the radical mullahs in Tehran” practically wheezed.
Eventually the long and winding road of the debate arrived at its termination point: a lame, awkward circa-1996 exchange about abortion by these theoretically vagina-less gentlemen, which tied into an exchange about their religion. If there is one short ticket to real pleasure, it is listening to middle-aged lawyers discuss their massive faith, and we got that sweet sugarplum near the close, a compressed encore of everything troublesome we had just been through.
For the sake of fairness, I trust the Governor and Senator are sincere about their beliefs; however, I would be more inclined to treat their professions of faith a little more seriously if their creeds weren’t so damn convenient for their political lives – whatever Kaine may say about his reluctance to execute criminals. Belief, like love, is an open fire: you’re warmer and more vulnerable at the same time. If either man had turned to the other and said “I love Jesus, and I love you too,” then it would have been a hundred times more awkward but a thousand times more relevant, and believable, and endearing.
At this point, I half-expected Quijano to trot out a sign reading “YOU ARE HERE FOREVER.”
No, that’s not true: I didn’t expect anything by then. Time and the nation-state and football season and all my rowdy friends had ceased to exist except in the most general, abstract, detached way. I knew of them as one might speak of an affair in a foreign country or the wittiest guy in your freshman-year frat: so distant and conjectural as not to exist. How long had I been watching this debate? Centuries? Months. It was hard to tell.
I love politics, love it. I get paid to write about it. I could spend the rest of my life scribbling thinkpieces about shirtless Vladimir Putin. But this debate made me realize how most people must feel about the biz. Why were these gentlemen speaking against ICBM proliferation? It would have solved so many problems. C’mon nuclear fire, do your thing.
Jason Rhode is on Twitter.