Why Tim Kaine's Vice Presidential Debate Strategy Is More Clever Than You Thought

The media’s immediate consensus on the vice presidential debate went something like this: Mike Pence won by being calm and statesman-like and Tim Kaine lost by being abrasive and interrupting too much. However, the match-up ultimately won’t matter very much. I basically agreed with that in the moments after the debate, but now I’m starting to think that every one of those assessments is incorrect. Far from being overly aggressive, Kaine's positively brilliant debate strategy to bait Donald Trump could pay off for Hillary Clinton.

There's no doubt that Kaine was very combative on Tuesday night — far more so than Pence. According to FiveThirtyEight, Kaine interrupted or interjected around 70 times when Pence was talking, while Pence “only” cut off Kaine on about 40 occasions. Moreover, Kaine had a giddy and somewhat hyper quality to him that didn’t look all that professional, especially when contrasted with Pence’s patient and soft-spoken affect. It’s no surprise that viewers, in a post-debate CNN poll, declared Pence the winner, albeit by a slim margin.

Initially, I more or less agreed with that take. But upon closer examination, it seems to me that there was something bigger going on.

To those who watched the debate from front the back, Kaine’s performance may well have come across as hectoring. But a lot of people didn’t, and won’t, watch the VP debate all the way through. Plenty of voters will instead digest it through one-minute clips, supercuts, and campaign ads.

From that standpoint, Kaine did a much, much better job. He repeatedly took Pence to task for refusing to defend Trump’s more odious positions — his proposed ban on Muslim immigration, his comments about nuclear weapons and his chumminess with Vladimir Putin, to name a few. This tactic felt tiresome in the context of watching the full debate — but when stitched together back-to-back, all of those individual moments will make for one hell of a supercut. I’d bet everything I own that the Clinton campaign is editing that supercut together as I write this.

Pence, by contrast, was more or less content to shake his head morosely and mutter “that’s not true” under his breath while Kaine spoke. That may have played well in the debate itself, but it’s pretty hard to make a campaign ad out of it.

This itself would be a sufficiently clever strategy — but the Democrats’ strategy operated on a much deeper level.

Kaine’s attacks on Pence followed a pattern. First, Kaine would bring up a perceived transgression or boneheaded statement by Trump; then, he’d ask Pence to defend it, and Pence would dodge; finally, Kaine would simply note to the moderator that Pence was unwilling to defend his running mate. That word is crucial: “Defend.” By my count, Kaine either insinuated or stated on no less than 16 occasions that Pence was refusing to “defend” Trump.

You know who probably isn’t happy about that? Trump.

And therein lies the genius of the Democrats’ strategy. Kaine correctly predicted that Pence, when confronted with Trump’s most noxious positions, would either shy away from them or flat-out deny them in an effort to seem appealing to moderate voters. But by doing this, Pence was inadvertently rejecting Trump — and this will almost certainly infuriate Trump, who has made it abundantly clear he demands his subordinates be as subservient and obsequious as possible (Just ask Chris Christie).

Compounding the matter is that Pence, by and large, was largely perceived to have done a better job at this debate than Trump did at the first presidential debate. And Trump does not like being shown up.

Kaine, in other words, tricked Pence into pissing off his boss. Indeed, there’s already been some reporting that confirms this:

Trump had already lost one debate; now, he’s lost one debate and been upstaged and rejected by his running mate in another. It’s hard to believe that he isn’t rattled by this — and in less than five days, he’ll have to debate Clinton again. It’s not at all unlikely that Trump, insecure as he is, will lash out at Pence over the next couple of days — and if he doesn’t do so on his own, it won’t be difficult for Clinton or Kaine to bait him into doing so (“If only Donald was as good of a debater as his running mate,” Clinton might say). Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign will be running ad after ad of Pence refusing to stand up for Trump.

It’s too soon to say exactly how this play out. But if this was indeed the Democrats' strategy, it’s almost frighteningly smart. Trump is his own worst enemy, and if Clinton can simply get him to continue putting his foot in his mouth, she’ll win this election. Kaine’s debate performance went a long way to accomplishing this.