INDIANAPOLIS — Mike Pence did a better job than his boss.
Going into Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, the Indiana governor had a tough set of tasks before him. Just a little more than a week earlier, Pence’s running mate, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, experienced a pummeling at the hands of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
That started a series of missteps and disasters for Trump — an ill-considered and unfounded Twitter barrage against a former Miss Universe; revelations from old tax forms that he may have lost close to $1 billion in a single year, a loss that may have allowed him to avoid paying taxes for nearly 20 years; and the announcement that the Trump Foundation had been hit with a cease-and-desist order by New York’s attorney general.
When Trump took the stage against Clinton in their first debate, he had pulled into a virtual tie with her in many national polls and even had gained slight leads in some key battleground states.
By the time Pence stepped up to debate the Democratic vice presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, each new poll was showing a wider lead for Clinton nationally, and she had reclaimed the edge in most battleground states.
That left Pence with a difficult job.
He had to stop the bleeding and drag the Republican ticket back on message.
Pence managed to do both those things.
Kaine came to the debate eager to force Pence to defend many of Trump’s often offensive statements about women, about Mexicans, about Muslims and, well, the list is just too long to detail in its entirety.
At every opportunity, whatever the subject, Kaine made mention of Trump’s debate comment that not paying taxes made him “smart,” that Trump often has spoken of women in demeaning terms and that the Republican standard-bearer was prone to making sweeping and derogatory statements about entire races or nationalities. He demanded, again and again, that Pence defend Trump’s statements.
Pence refused to do so.
That doubtless was the wisest course for him and the GOP.
Instead of being trapped into defending Trump’s often indefensible choices, Pence used his time to pivot and attack Hillary Clinton’s record. His long years of media training as a radio talk show host manifested themselves when, several times, he shattered television’s fourth wall to talk directly with the viewing audience, reminding those watching that Clinton was part of the Washington establishment and that she and Kaine were in favor of higher taxes.
In doing so, Pence delivered a tutorial for Trump on the values of self-discipline and staying on message. He refused to be drawn into fights he couldn’t win and instead chose to battle on ground from which he could launch and land telling shots.
His refusal to give full-throated support to some of Trump’s more outlandish pronouncements may irritate The Donald, whose ego needs are “yuge,” but all other Republicans are likely to be grateful.
What Pence did with his time on stage was remind the faithful that, however uneasy they may be about Trump’s instability and lack of discipline, there are good reasons to not to abandon the GOP. Pence set out the welcome mat for wavering Republicans to come home by reminding them of the core issues — tax reduction, abortion, etc. — they would be abandoning if they jumped ship in this election.
All across the nation, Republican candidates in down-ticket races probably are writing Pence thank-you notes right now because he did so.
Kaine’s performance was less polished than Pence’s, but he, too, did what he set out to do. He wanted to make the case that Donald Trump can’t be trusted with the power of the presidency, and he delivered his talking points with all the regularity and charm of a metronome.
But the sheer repetition of Trump’s statements and missteps established a forcefulness that Kaine’s rhetorical skills otherwise could not provide.
That’s pretty much how the night went.
Pence was graceful.
Kaine was dogged.
Whether their exchanges changed anyone’s mind is an open question, but, overall, it was a good night for the GOP.
In order to have a chance to win, you first have to stop losing.
And that’s what Mike Pence did for Republicans on Tuesday night.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.