The vice presidential debate was 90 minutes of chaos disguised as an exchange of ideas. Tim Kaine was an attack dog, with a Trump-like propensity to interrupt. How much you could stand that approach depends on how much you agree with Kaine and his mission to hammer on Donald Trump. By comparison, Pence was much more low-key, every bit the even-tempered Midwesterner.
The immediate media analysis is that Pence won on style. But on substance, Pence flopped. Kaine repeatedly pressed the governor to denounce Trump’s worst statement. Pence simply ignored Kaine or denied the facts. Perhaps Pence’s most telling comment was his stumbling defense of his running mate’s comments about punishing women who have an abortion (which Trump uncharacteristically walked back): “He’s not a polished politician.”
One thing seems clear from Pence’s performance. He’s willing to withstand the humiliation Trump heaps on him because he wants to run for president in 2020. He spoke as the representative of the establishment wing of the GOP, which will be desperate to forget that Donald Trump ever happened. He barely raised his voice to defend Trump, meaning he probably knows he’s dust and is looking toward the future.
If Trump loses, Pence will have earned points as a good party soldier. If by some stroke of misfortune Trump wins, Pence’s presence on the ticket reassures the establishment that a Trump White House wouldn’t be completely deranged.
In either case, Pence has set himself up as a front-runner for the next GOP presidential contest. In doing so, he’s managed to redeem himself–at least within his party–for his disastrous performance with Indiana’s religious liberty bill.
The only problem is that, as an unrepentant homophobe, Pence is a throwback to the culture wars of the 1990s. By the time the next election rolls around, his views will be even more dated, leaving the GOP trapped in a political past that no longer exists.