I’m sorry, but last night’s debate left me sick to my stomach. Over the course of 12 months, this debate over Mike Pence’s presence in this debate and whether it changes the rules of engagement has shown us what a kind of potent Trojan horse he has become.
Mr. Pence’s debut on national television had the sort of thrilling potential the vice presidency can give you. It was a stage on which the governor of Indiana could display not only his intellect and gravitas, but also his knack for witty verbal calibration and rapid memorization, for saying exactly what he meant to say and for saying it in as perfectly-calibrated manner as possible.
Such an exercise ought to be no less as exhilarating for a second-in-line to the presidency than for a college roommate waiting on a quarter horse.
Instead, we were treated to something unrecognizable: old Mike, dull Mike and, I suppose, his old father, too.
Mr. Pence’s routine — replete with Obama-cronyism and refusal to bother with the answers to the questions posed by the moderator — was so disappointing that it inspired me to think about whether his entire campaign is living in some alternate universe, one in which Gary Johnson isn’t on the ballot and Marco Rubio doesn’t have to misspell the word “Constitution” on national television.
It wasn’t the only straw that tipped my nose: President Trump’s utterly predictable fixation on Mr. Trump’s taller, better-looking opponent, with the balding, slightly embarrassed side eye on display when he noted that Mrs. Clinton had “had a little problem this week,” and the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that it might help to remove Ben Carson’s infamously nasal voice from the stage.
And, without more than passing reference, there was Mr. Trump’s allusion to “the excellent moderator” as if a woman had held the mic to that man’s eyeballs.
Republicans know that if they cannot promise complete unity, they must focus on personality. For months now, Republicans have acknowledged the need to bring more women onto their side, to figure out how to win an election with African-American voters, Hispanic voters and Asian-Americans. And if only because that’s what the demographics are saying — and the candidate who failed to win the popular vote last year’s election by the narrowest of margins is running the table in the Rust Belt — they must do it. They must keep Mr. Trump close to Barack Obama’s level of support among the populace that actually votes.
But Mr. Pence’s deliberate avoidance of questions about the slew of horrifying executive actions Mr. Trump has been signing this week and the millions of federal jobless who haven’t been paid in two years — and, indeed, the entire debate’s gaffe-strewn history — ensured that the GOP nominee will be roaring across his road to 270 electoral votes and a new presidency.
And while the men on the other side of that debate aisle were booing and jeering about yet another round of violence in our cities and about senseless police killings and about a president in the midst of his own temper tantrum, the Republicans are waxing lyrical about the notion that the man who has managed to make even it difficult for his own party to see him as any kind of worthy presidential candidate must be applauded.
There was also a heavy dose of Donald Trump’s “I’ll be making America great again” speech, the one in which he plays down the concerns of his own demographic and offers a startlingly simple reality. This is what Mr. Trump really means by a Great Again. It really is something his advisers think will juice up the Trump support-holding base, and it is something Mr. Trump has every right to say and every right to believe.
Mr. Pence read it as if it were a line from a Republican convention speech. That didn’t make it any better, since voters looking for a hopeful vision of the future have every right to see it as cynical. Nor does Mr. Pence seem to remember that one of the things the word “great” reminds us to remember — that the United States is, after all, a Great Nation — was ratified by our Founders in 1776.
I’ve come to dislike Mr. Pence more than I dislike Mr. Trump, but that is because I no longer see the two of them as a fitting fit for each other.