Vice presidential nominees Tim Kaine (D) and Mike Pence (R) repeatedly clashed on national security last night in a debate that initial polls indicate was won by Pence.
Three important moments were:
- When the two agreed that the U.S. should militarily strike the Syrian regime,
- When Kaine argued that the terrorist threat had decreased “in some ways” since 2008, and
- The fact that a long-term plan to defeat Islamist extremism was missing from the discussion.
Kaine’s strongest moments were when he referenced Donald Trump’s statements about allowing Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons and asking whether Trump would put America’s interests above his alleged business interests with Russia.
He also mentioned the former ties between Russia and Trump’s former campaign manager. Pence said these were false accusations and incorrect depictions of what Trump said.
Kaine’s weakest moment was his argument that the terrorist threat has decreased since the Obama Administration came in by pointing to the killing of Bin Laden and the supposed stopping of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. (Pence obviously disagreed with that characterization.) He also said that the terrorist threat to U.S. troops has decreased because there were 175,000 troops at war and now there are only 15,000.
That was the most embarrassing line of the night; one easily debunked with four letters: ISIS. Although Kaine added the caveat that the terrorist threat declined “in some ways,” no one will remember that linguistic safety net. The way he described the terrorist threat was undeniably at odds with what’s happening in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
There were two missed opportunities for Kaine.
First, Pence went (as Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post put it) “far, far beyond Trump on Syria” yet Kaine did not press him on the contradiction within the GOP ticket. Pence agreed with Kaine that the U.S. should militarily strike the Syrian regime’s forces in order to alleviate the humanitarian crnisis in that country.
Trump has endorsed a safe zone but has previously opposed U.S. military action against the Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran, arguing that our sole focus in Syria should be ISIS and Al-Qaeda and that Assad can be dealt with later.
Second, Kaine did not focus on Trump’s repeated statements that the U.S. should have seized Iraq and Libya’s oil for itself and have a force there to hold onto it indefinitely.
Pence had many strong moments.
His sharpest counter-attack was mentioning the flow of foreign money to the Clinton Foundation, arguing that foreigners donated to the charity because they can’t donate to political campaigns. He claimed that half of Clinton’s meetings as Secretary of State were with donors. His pithy summary stung.
Pence countered Kaine’s boasts about the nuclear deal with Iran by pointing out that all of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear weapons program expire at the end of the deal, ultimately leaving Iran in a stronger position to develop nukes. He also pointed to Israel’s opposition as proof of the riskiness of the deal and suggested Kaine is dismissive of Israel’s legitimate concerns because he was one of only a handful of senators who boycotted the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech to Congress about the Iran deal.
Pence didn’t have any moments in the debate where he was weak on national security in a way that was apparent to the audience. The only liability will be his endorsement of U.S. military action against the Syrian regime, a statement his ticket will struggle to reconcile with Trump’s position over the coming days.
He did, however, miss two major opportunities:
As expected, Pence offered Hillary Clinton’s email scandal as evidence that she cannot be trusted on national security, particularly in regards to cyber warfare. Kaine responded by citing the FBI director’s decision to not prosecute her and the conversation moved on.
Pence failed to point out the subtle shift that happened. Kaine moved it from a question of responsibility to a question of legality and the objectivity of the Justice Department (stronger ground where the waters can be muddied enough to confuse and bore the viewer).
Pence surprisingly did not raise the damning quote from the FBI director’s statement that Clinton and her aides “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” It’s a single sentence that is impossible for an aspiring commander-in-chief to effectively deflect.
The second missed opportunity was available when the two discussed the issue of Syrian refugees, border security and homegrown terrorism. Pence should have pointed out that Kaine appointed a Hamas supporter and leader of a known Muslim Brotherhood front to his state immigration commission. His administration initially accused those who pointed out the appointee’s background of being bigots.
The consensus is that the two tickets are now tied with each winning one debate. The next one is Sunday, October 9.
ABOUT RYAN MAURO
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.
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