Mike Pence’s Defense Strategy: Dodge and Deflect Donald Trump’s Words

Mike Pence defended Donald J. Trump by scarcely defending him at all.

For 90 minutes on Tuesday night, Mr. Pence, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, was asked, over and over, to carry out perhaps the most unenviable, thankless and futile task in American politics: answering for Mr. Trump’s cruel name-calling, factual distortions and radical proposals.

Instead, he dodged, deflected and demurred — deciding, it seemed, that all of the fires that Mr. Trump has set in the past year could not be doused in a single night.

When his Democratic rival, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, delivered a scorching rebuke of Mr. Trump’s affection for autocrats like Vladimir V. Putin and Saddam Hussein, both of whom he has praised, Mr. Pence, the governor of Indiana, looked over, weighed the message and promptly changed the subject.

“Did you work on that one a long time?” Mr. Pence mischievously asked his rival. “Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”

Here is what he did not do: defend Mr. Trump’s warm words for those much-maligned foreign leaders.

In Mr. Pence’s telling, it was the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, not Mr. Trump, who was running the “insult-driven campaign.”

Mr. Kaine, who was compelled to spend much of his time defending Mrs. Clinton, seemed at times bewildered by Mr. Pence’s coolly effective performance. “He is trying to fuzz up what Donald Trump has said,” Mr. Kaine said.

And he was right. Pressed on Mr. Trump’s startling and unsubstantiated claim that Mexico was sending rapists and criminals to the United States, Mr. Pence protested that his running mate had called some of those immigrants “good people.”

Time and again, Mr. Kaine beseeched Mr. Pence to explain or justify Mr. Trump’s behavior.

Time and again, Mr. Pence found a way not to.

Did Mr. Trump apologize, Mr. Kaine wondered, for mocking a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, because she had gained weight? Did Mr. Trump apologize for describing black people as living in a dystopian war zone? Did Mr. Trump apologize for stoking doubts about President Obama’s place of birth?

“You will look in vain,” Mr. Kaine said, “to see Donald Trump ever taking responsibility for anybody and apologizing.”

Mr. Pence did not take the opportunity to apologize for Mr. Trump. Instead, he pivoted to Mrs. Clinton, reminding viewers that she had dismissed half of Mr. Trump’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables.”

“She said they were irredeemable — they were not American,” Mr. Pence said. “I mean, it’s extraordinary.”

All running mates eventually play the role of human shield, sacrificing a measure of dignity and putting their future political prospects in jeopardy to protect the person at the top of the ticket. But in most cases, the slings and arrows originate with their rivals.

From the moment he was named to the Republican ticket, however, Mr. Pence has struggled to salve the wounds and minimize the damage that Mr. Trump has inflicted on himself.

It is a painful task, and one that Mr. Pence has gamely tried to laugh off with self-deprecating jokes about bringing a dose of sobriety to an amply colorful candidacy. In almost every conceivable way, he is Mr. Trump’s polar opposite: deeply religious, instinctively civil and conspicuously cautious — as at ease quoting from Scripture as Mr. Trump is mocking a woman’s physique.

On Tuesday, Mr. Pence reminded Americans of his faith in prayer. “I try to spend a little time on my knees every day,” he said.

For all their bruising clashes, Mr. Kaine and Mr. Pence have much in common: Both have experience as governors of large states. Both were raised Roman Catholic — though Mr. Pence later became an evangelical Christian — in middle-class Midwestern families of Irish ancestry. Both have sons serving in the Marines.

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Video Mike Pence took issue with his campaign being described as “insult-driven,” remarking that Hillary Clinton singled out portions of his supporters as being a “basket of deplorables.”

But the similarities end there. Mr. Kaine was chosen for his political compatibility and his chemistry with Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Pence was chosen as a conservative counterweight who could stick up for Mr. Trump with all manner of doubters.

Mr. Pence, who speaks in the steady, measured voice of a former talk radio host, has embraced that challenge on the campaign trail. But his previous attempts to translate and recast Mr. Trump’s statements have at times tipped over into parody.

Why did Mr. Trump invite Russian hackers to illegally break into Mrs. Clinton’s email? “He’s just simply saying, ‘Gosh, if they’re out there somewhere, I would like to see them,’” Mr. Pence explained.

At times, Mr. Pence, a former altar boy, has simply thrown up his hands and conceded that Mr. Trump was flat-out wrong, as he did when he was asked about Mr. Obama’s birthplace.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Pence made no such concessions.

Was it wrong that Mr. Trump may have avoided paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years, by using a nearly $1 billion loss that he declared in 1995?

“Do you take all your deductions, Senator?” Mr. Pence batted back, with a smile. “I do.”

Throughout the debate, Mr. Kaine, a onetime civil rights lawyer, played prosecutor, framing the night as a series of demands for accountability from Mr. Pence.

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Video Throughout the night, Tim Kaine repeatedly expressed disbelief that Mike Pence would defend various positions of his running mate’s.

When Mr. Kaine reminded Mr. Pence, once again, of Mr. Trump’s denigrating description of immigrants from Mexico, Mr. Pence could hardly muster a reply. “You whipped out that Mexican thing again,” he observed, sounding more like an analyst than a participant in the debate.

Mr. Kaine frequently took notes, sipped water or merely grinned as Mr. Pence spoke. Eventually he made clear what he had been jotting down.

“Six times tonight I have said to Governor Pence, I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next,” Mr. Kaine said, “and in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate. And yet he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.”

Mr. Pence shot him a chilly look. “I’m happy to defend him, Senator,” he said of Mr. Trump. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

But it was Mr. Trump’s words that loomed largest throughout the night.

In fact, Mr. Trump has relentlessly upstaged Mr. Pence from the start of their partnership. At the news conference introducing his running mate, Mr. Trump ignored tradition and droned on for 28 minutes, focusing on himself, not on Mr. Pence. The campaign’s emasculating initial logo did not help matters: An oversize T seemed to skewer a smaller P.

That design was scrapped, but Mr. Pence has been eclipsed, nonetheless, ever since.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump overshadowed him in a different way, by forcing Mr. Pence to absorb the consequences of Mr. Trump’s pronouncements and to defend his business record.

It was left to Mr. Kaine to define this new, awkward role, with a sneering allusion to Mr. Trump’s reality-TV past.

“You,” he told Mr. Pence, “are Donald Trump’s apprentice.”

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