Was Tuesday’s vice presidential debate a Democratic knockout? Not really. Democrats certainly aimed for one to solidify their argument that the Republican ticket is completely unqualified to lead the country. But they did not get it.
But the story becomes more complicated.
Not only was it not a knockout for the Democrats, Pence solidified his position as a major contender for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination. And even more to the point, he could come out of the campaign as the Republican Party’s primary spokesperson.
While Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan's home state highlights challenge for GOP high-risk insurer pools Trump 'disappointed' in congressional GOP Bipartisan push grows for new war authorization MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzTrump in campaign mode at NRA convention Trump’s hands are tied on 9th Circuit Schumer: Trump's handling of North Korea 'all wrong' MORE have been jockeying for that position, Pence may have already cemented it.
Had Pence mocked the moderator for whatever reason, argued that the microphone was faulty, or defended an indefensible position, the Democrats could easily have had their win. Virginia Sen. Tim KaineTim KaineDemocrats exploring lawsuit against Trump Overnight Defense: US moving missile defense system to South Korea | Dems want justification for Syria strike | Army pick pushes back against critics of LGBT record Kaine, Schiff press Trump on legal justification for Syria strike MORE would not have had to do much to be declared the easy victor. But Pence looked straight at the moderator, sat up straight, and made his argument.
Few people cared what he said. In fact, as we look back on the debate perhaps the only memorable line from Pence was his defense of strict abortion laws. In general, the debate had no surprises from either side.
Yet it is exactly the fact that there were no surprises from either side that gave the win to Pence, because he appeared rational on an otherwise irrational ticket.
Voters who listened to the debate didn’t have to agree with him, but they were unquestionably comforted by his demeanor and his ability to answer a question. Trump has so little command of domestic or foreign policy that he cannot answer a question except in completely superficial ways and often in fractured sentences.
In contrast, during the brief 90 minutes of the debate, voters saw that the Republican vice presidential candidate was well-briefed and understood the material he was talking about.
Polls after the debate indicated that Pence was given slightly higher marks than Kaine, by approximately 48 percent to 42 percent. But Kaine did not lose the debate by any means. He championed Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump in campaign mode at NRA convention Vicente Fox to Trump: ‘Being president ain’t easy’ When political opportunity knocked, Jason Chaffetz never failed to cash in MORE’s positions, forcefully pointed out discrepancies in Trump’s positions, chided Trump for his attacks on a wide variety of people, and was in command of every argument he made.
But no one ever doubted that Clinton could handle the job of president or that Kaine could handle the job of vice president.
This debate was not about his qualifications or his ability to run the country. At question was whether Pence could handle the job of either vice president or president. Tuesday’s debate allowed him his first national platform to be seen as independent of Trump and not a yes-man or a Trump patsy.
That’s the only reason anyone watched the debate. And Pence not only survived the inquisition by the voters, he walked away unscathed. That’s why he polled well.
Would anyone have watched the vice presidential debate for any reason other than to assess Pence? Probably not. The vast majority of voters have already made up their minds on whether they will support Clinton or Trump, and those undecided voters would hardly make a final decision based on what Kaine or Pence said in their debate.
The vice presidential debate will have little or no impact on the Nov. 8 election. Anyone who was voting for Trump or Clinton still is, and anyone who was undecided still is as well. But Republicans who are reluctantly supporting Trump can now pull the lever with less angst after watching the debate, comforted by the notion that there is some sanity in the Republican ticket.
Even Democrats may find solace in that thought.
For Speaker Paul Ryan, that is a problem. Pence, who has long held national political aspirations, could become the Republican candidate-in-waiting should Clinton capture the Oval Office.
Four years ago, Ryan was the Republican vice presidential candidate. Vice President Biden completely dominated the 2012 vice presidential debates, with Ryan appearing nervous and uncomfortable in his role.
If there is anything to be glimmered by last night’s debate, it is that Pence, the social conservative, and Ryan, the fiscal conservative, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the everything conservative, will be juggling for control of the party at some point in the near future.
For Republicans, this may be a sobering thought: returning to the conservative principles that has guided the party for several decades will be a welcome relief.
Warshaw is a professor of political science at Gettysburg College.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.