When we last left the debating field, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was still reeling from a potent jab from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Clinton memorably closed the first presidential debate by introducing the subject of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, reminding voters of the businessman’s long and storied history of sexist name-calling and derogatory treatment of women. A few hours later, Trump reaffirmed Clinton’s point with a series of 3 a.m. tweets, calling Machado names spreading rumors about a sex tape he swears Machado recorded.
Ladies and Gentlemen, that is your potential new Commander-and Chief at his finest.
With Trump giving his weakest performance yet, and doubling down on his sexist ramblings even after the microphones were turned off, it was up to his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, to try to extend an olive branch to the female voters who simply cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump. And it is a large, large pool to reach out to. Associated Press polling has Clinton leading Trump 51 to 34 percent among women, and 64 percent of women polled said they had an unfavorable opinion of the GOP candidate.
It’s an interesting turn of events when Mike Pence becomes your emissary to the female population. As a congressman, Pence introduced bills to defund Planned Parenthood, require a mandatory ultrasound before every abortion, and redefine sexual assault to only allow insurance to cover abortion for those impregnated by “forcible rape,” since apparently there are some sexual-assault victims more deserving than others. His term as governor of Indiana hasn’t been much better, with sexual-health clinics closing, abortion nearly impossible to access, the biggest HIV outbreak in decades, and a massive gendered wage gap.
Still, someone had to try to woo the women, according to the press, and that somebody was going to be Pence. USA Today promised us it was coming, declaring, “The fight over female voters to carry into the VP debate.” But when the two candidates met in Virginia, it became clear that the only time women would play a significant role in the discussion was in the role of mediating: Try as she did, moderator Elaine Quijano's attempts to stop the nominees from talking over each other proved futile. And so the 90-minute debate was heavy on foreign policy, with Russia, ISIL, nuclear war, and Syria.
On what few domestic topics there were, Pence and Kaine made it clear that their respective campaigns’ viewpoints were diametrically opposed, even in the rare places where they seemed to agree. A question on police policy and racism caused Pence to admit that he did agree with Kaine on the idea of having more community policing, before veering off into a defense of police forces and a denial that there is any implicit bias involved law enforcement. Meanwhile, Kaine hit Pence repeatedly over all of Trump’s weaknesses, from his deportation plans to his campaign full of insults, their subtle (and not so subtle) approval of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and the xenophobia toward immigrants. Kaine, with his frentic energy, incessant interruptions, and constantly askance eyebrow, leveled a number of hard hits on Pence—and yet he managed to come off as the weaker contender. And Pence was unflappably calm, as he defended Trump, boldly refuting claims that his running mate said many of the outlandish claims and insults he's on record as having said. Of course, Trump was live-tweeting throughout, proving Kaine's point.
Meanwhile, issues that matter directly to women got almost no air time at all—as ever. There was a passing mention of health care, despite the fact that the Trump-Pence ticket has promised to repeal Obamacare, which among other advances forbids insurers from charging women more than men for their insurance plans. There was no mention of family-leave policies or the gender wage gap. No one thought to bring up early childhood education, day-care reimbursement or all-day pre-K, programs that help women return to work earlier if they choose. There most definitely wasn’t any discussion about the birth control, either regarding clinics being defunded, bosses that want to opt out of covering it in their insurance policies, or teens who want to be able to access it without being forced to get a parent’s consent, first.
In fact, the closest thing to a “woman’s issue” discussed during the vice-presidential debate came just seven minutes before it was scheduled to end. Quijano asked both candidates to talk about a time when they were forced to “balance faith and policy.” The conversation turned to abortion. “It is not the role of a public servant to mandate that for everyone else,” Kaine responded, arguing that he could be personally opposed to abortion but not believe it was his right to legislate his religious beliefs onto others.
Pence vehemently disagreed. He sniped at Kaine, claiming Clinton supported “partial-birth abortion”—a ludicrous statement since there is no such medical procedure, and regardless, the federal government passed a ban on second-trimester (beginning at the fifth month) abortions in 2007. Pence next contradicted Kaine’s statement that Trump said he wanted to punish women who have abortions, despite the fact that Trump said exactly that in March 2016.
"Donald Trump and I would never support legislation against women who make the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy," retorted Pence, ignoring the fact that his state only recently threw out the conviction of Purvi Patel, who was charged with feticide under the state’s 1979 law prohibiting violence against fetuses after allegedly inducing her own abortion and then going to the hospital for treatment due to complications. Pence, it bears reminding, tried to force Indiana women to hold funerals for their fetuses following miscarriages or abortions. Who has voted against family leave and equal pay for women. Yeah, he's that big-hearted guy.
Kaine, despite his religious leanings, made it clear that abortion would not be restricted in a Clinton administration. “We trust American women to do that and we don’t think that American women should be punished,” he said, marking one of maybe a handful of times the word “woman” was uttered by a vice-presidential candidate during the debate.
To be fair, the vice-presidential debate was never going to change people’s minds. Those who were already prepared to vote for Trump can do so a little easier now, since they can at least pretend that Pence will somehow balance out the more temperamental and volatile parts of his personality. Those who wanted to vote for Clinton were never going to be shaken from that vote, no matter how over-exuberant and underwhelming her running mate appeared. But as for narrowing or widening the gender gap this election, that’s never going to happen until we finally get a debate that is less focused on terrorism and temper tantrums and actually takes women seriously as a voting bloc.