Debate Left One Would-Be VP Better Positioned to Run on His Own

And it's not Pence...

Vice presidential nominees, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, left, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at the vice presidential debate at Longwood University on Tuesday in Farmville, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Vice presidential nominees, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, left, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at the vice presidential debate at Longwood University on Tuesday in Farmville, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted October 6, 2016 at 5:00am

One of the guys who just made his nationally televised debating debut will be a heartbeat away from the presidency in less than four months — and the other will be on every list of presidential prospects for 2020.

Tuesday night’s interrupt-a-thon actually helped put Tim Kaine in the better position than Mike Pence to go for the No. 1 job next time if the No. 2 thing doesn’t work out this time.

If the Democratic ticket gets upset in November, it won’t be because Kaine failed to execute his obvious orders from Hillary Clinton’s campaign: He found, or else created, every possible opportunity to remind voters about all the outrageous items in Donald Trump’s deep basket of rhetorical deplorables.  

His chippiness (in the hockey sense) bordered on yippiness at times, but Kaine played the attack dog role with all the determination his ticket mate could have hoped for.

So if she loses anyway, the Democratic Party would surely blame the defeat largely on Clinton’s own well-understood shortcomings. Her would-be vice president would be held harmless.

Unless he somehow manages to manufacture the dispositive crisis for the ticket in the next month, he would be welcomed back at the Capitol. And then he could spend the next few years making a name for himself on domestic and international affairs from his seats on the Senate’s Budget, Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

He’d surely draw a reasonably viable Republican to oppose his quest for re-election in 2018, but his national stature would allow him to run that race with limitless campaign resources — and confidence in Virginia’s steady demographic shift from lavender toward Concord grape purple.

All this, plus the remarkably shallow bench of Democrats with obvious presidential potential, make it easy to predict that Kaine will be running for the White House in four years (when he’ll turn 62) if it’s got a Republican occupant.

No political home

Pence will be 60 during the next round of GOP primaries. But if he’s not the nation’s 48th vice president at that time, he’ll be nowhere else prominent in public life. His time as Indiana’s governor will be over in January.

If he’s got designs on the top job in just four years, it would make no sense for him to spend half that time going after something else. (And that’s even though Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly will be inherently vulnerable in 2018 given the state’s ruby red hue.) Instead, a Mike Huckabee-like life on the rubber chicken circuit and as a cable news commentator would be Pence’s likeliest temporary career.

The former radio talk show host knows that business well. And it would afford him a platform for deepening his relationship with fellow Christian conservatives, who will be working to strengthen their recently wobbly influence over the GOP nominating process.

Pence’s closing minutes Tuesday, when he introduced his fervent opposition to abortion rights into the discussion with a quiet intensity, were a memorable step in that effort.

But, even then, his effectiveness in the short term may be undermining his ambitions over the long term.

If Trump comes up short of 270 electoral votes, the main talking point from the Republican establishment Nov. 9 will be that he was a woefully imperfect vessel for his own cause — speaking for those Americans who feel economically and politically disenfranchised. But the party will proclaim its devotion to shaping new messages, and finding a new messenger, for hanging on to the millions of mostly white, working-class men that Trump brought to the GOP this year.

Pence’s resume as a pro-business, free-trade, conservative-governing insider doesn’t make him an obvious choice for the role. And the complex way he positioned himself in relation to Trump at the debate has left plenty of ammunition for future presidential candidates to use if they have Pence as a rival.

The rhetorical sponge

Behind the polish and the poise, Pence acted on the stage at Virginia’s Longwood University like the personification of a semipermeable sponge — alternately absorbing the poisonous sound bites that were really aimed at his ticket mate, or else repelling Kaine’s attacks with flat denials that Trump never said things he’s absolutely said.

Some future potential GOP presidential rivals will surely want to point out how Pence declined to use his big moment in the national spotlight to distance himself more clearly from the 2016 nominee’s manifest flaws.

Other 2020 candidates may want to poke at him for the opposite reason, and the debate offered them evidence, too: Pence offered hardly any forceful rebuttal when Kaine attacked Trump as temperamentally unsuitable for the presidency.

Running mate debates may rarely affect the course of the campaign of which they are a part, but they almost always start shaping the contours of the national political future.

Dan Quayle got elected vice president in 1988, for example, but his frozen-with-embarrassment countenance after Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” dismissal started sealing the impression that he’d never deserve the top job. Paul Ryan didn’t get elected in 2012, in contrast, but his time as Mitt Romney’s backup only enhanced his reputation as a mainstream conservative spokesman of the future, helping elevate him to the House speakership a year ago and putting him on every Republican roster of potential 2020 nominees.

Where Pence falls on this continuum won’t be known for a month, but over time it may become clear the vice presidential debate hastened his political sell-by date.