Tim Kaine Should Have Hammered Mike Pence On This Issue. He Never Even Mentioned It

Near the end of Tuesday night's vice presidential debate, I briefly moved a tiny bit closer (though not that close) to the edge of my seat. The moderator, Elaine Quijano, posed a question that was almost asking for Democrat Tim Kaine to attack Republican Mike Pence. "You have both been open about the role that faith has played in your lives," Quijano said. "Can you discuss in detail a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and a public policy position?"

This seemed tailor-made for reminding voters about what Pence was most famous for before he was tapped as Donald Trump's running mate: Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which allowed businesses to use religious beliefs as a legal defense to disobey equality laws. With the bill passing in the state almost concurrently with the Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage legal, many connected it to the backlash against gay rights and warned it would let businesses discriminate against gays. Yet Kaine declined to bring up Pence's push for RFRA (or his reluctant backpedaling).

Gay rights have been conspicuously absent from discussion in an election that comes just over a year after Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that marriage was a Constitutionally protected right for same-sex people. Moreover, it's been just 12 years since a Republican president highlighted his opposition to same-sex marriage as an election issue. A big part of its lack of presence may be a result of Trump's milder views on the issue. Though he opposes gay marriage, he has been more welcoming of the gay community than any recent Republican presidential candidate, to the point of having openly gay investor Peter Thiel speak at the Republican National Convention and say this:

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Trump's choice of Pence as VP was seen largely as an olive branch to social conservatives who were tepid toward Trump for his abortion flip-flopping and lack of vigor on gay marriage. And though it hasn't been a major story of the election, Trump's campaign has remained rather close to the traditional Republican advocacy groups which continue to fight gay rights.

Bringing up gay marriage as a wedge issue could have been smart for Kaine, because 55 percent of Americans support gay marriage, compared to just 37 percent who oppose, according to a May 2016 survey by Pew. The issue is especially winning with millennials, 71 percent of whom support gay marriage. Considering how much trouble the Clinton campaign has had getting millennials enthusiastic to vote for her, even if they don't like Trump, this could have been a smart issue to bring to the fore.

But despite all that, when Kaine had a chance to remind voters of gay rights as an election issue, he demurred. To me, it reflected on what seemed like a constant theme of the night. Kaine debated as if Pence didn't exist and his opponent was Trump. Meanwhile, Pence debated as if Trump didn't exist and he was the top of his party's ticket.