The contentious 2016 presidential campaign entered its next round Tuesday night with the Vice-Presidential Debate between the two running mates of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, respectively — at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.
As anticipated, both candidates — seasoned politicos and loyal soldiers to their running mates — demonstrated their debating prowess in aggressive back-and-forth exchanges on the stage. It was also hoped, in vain, unfortunately, that because of their political backgrounds on the state and federal levels Kaine and Pence would lift the tone of the otherwise acrimonious spectacle of the campaign.
Moderated by Elaine Quijano, the CBS News anchor who is also the first Asian-American journalist to moderate a national debate, the evening was marked by frequent interruptions (Kaine tried to interrupt 70 times vs. 19 times for Pence, by my count), bickering over who was waging a more sleazy “campaign of insults” and a sharp contrast between an overprepared Kaine and a taciturn-but-earnest Pence.
Both candidates had specific tasks ahead of them. Pence had to break a little of Clinton’s momentum after the first presidential debate and reframe the various avenues of political attack (e.g., Clinton’s email scandal, the collapse of U.S. foreign policy and Clinton’s severe problem with voters who see her as untrustworthy) that had been badly squandered by Trump a week ago.
Kaine, meanwhile, was obviously charged with trying to be the aggressor (like Clinton in the first debate), force Pence to defend Trump’s often intemperate and crude remarks and above all hammer away on the Trump tax issue and whether the Republican nominee had paid his taxes.
Both candidates tried their hardest to accomplish their tasks, but they did so at times with such vigor that they did not even remember the questions being asked. In one exchange, the two savaged each other over Trump’s taxes until Quijano reminded both participants that they were actually discussing North Korea.
Regardless of whether the Trump tax issue emerges as a true existential threat to the Republican candidate’s hopes of winning the White House, Kaine raised the topic so many times in the 90-minute debate that it assumed ultimately comical dimensions. He also was so weighed down by his talking points that he grew flustered at one point and lost count.
Pence, on the other hand, used a conversational style that connected with the audience better and showed his experience as a radio and TV host. But he, too, struggled at times to defend Trump from the ceaseless rhetorical barrage.
But then came the moment at the very end, when, at long last, the two candidates were asked about their faith lives.
The backstory to the faith formation of both Kaine and Pence is now well-documented, with a nominally Catholic senator from Virginia facing the fallen-away Catholic Indiana governor.
After proudly proclaiming his and Clinton’s Christian bona fides, Kaine, as he has done repeatedly, tried to use the shopworn cliché that he might personally believe in the teachings of the Church but would not impose them in discussing public policy.
When asked about the greatest challenge they have faced in reconciling their faith with public service, Kaine shockingly claimed that the single hardest decision he ever made was not related to abortion: It was accepting Virginia’s use of the death penalty after he was elected governor, despite his Catholic faith.
Like the rest of his prepared-and-scripted debate preparation, Kaine went with what was planned, a safe pick of the death penalty that avoids the obvious question that any reasonably catechized Catholic would immediately ask. Amazingly, depressingly, Kaine did not even mention abortion as something with which he had to grapple as an elected official who claims to be Catholic.
Here is what the Catechism has to say about the death penalty:
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent" (2267).
As for abortion, the Catechism declares:
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. … Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law. … Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life (2270-2272).
Kaine’s safe plan imploded as he was forced by Pence to give a full-throated defense of abortion. For pro-life supporters and millions of Catholics, it was horrifying, and disappointing, to hear Kaine try to advance the idea, “Live your moral values” … but then fundamentally betray the very values that he claims to espouse. This problem has been examined previously by the Register, and it was laid bare in the debate.
For his part, Pence gave an earnest declaration in favor of the pro-life cause, going so far to use the term “culture of life” first uttered by St. John Paul II. It was entirely unexpected, almost unprecedented in debate history, in the starkness of its contrast.
Pence was aided by the fact that he had been comparatively civil throughout the entire discussion, a seeming decency that added weight to his bold assertion, “I have had a great compassion for the sanctity of life as a public servant.”
How rare it is that a candidate for one of the highest offices in the land should speak so forcefully and eloquently for the pro-life cause before so large an audience.
Caught Off Guard
But Pence was also a clever debater. He referenced repeatedly Kaine’s history of claiming to be pro-life (Kaine has earned a 100% rating by NARAL and other abortion groups since entering the U.S. Senate), even as he now defends Hillary Clinton’s radical abortion strategy that would inevitably be implemented by a Clinton administration.
Kaine was caught off guard and was visibly squirming in his seat as he was forced to defend not just Roe v. Wade, but partial-birth abortion and the repeal of the Hyde Amendment (the prohibition of taxpayer funds for abortion) that he claims to have long opposed. Anyone watching saw what appeared to be a politician who had left his beliefs behind in favor of expediency.
Vice-presidential debates rarely turn elections in either direction. This one likely only reinforced the opinions of both candidates’ followers. But if it slowed Clinton’s growing distance from Trump in the polls, then Pence accomplished his mission.
Nevertheless, for one night, the pro-life cause had a champion proclaiming the sanctity of life before the nation. It was a moment that pro-life supporters will remember for a very long time.
Matthew Bunson, Ph.D., is senior contributor to the Register and EWTN News.