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In VP debate, Mike Pence struggled to defend Trump's record

As it turns out, the key to serving as Donald Trump's running mate is pretending Donald Trump isn't your running mate.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine  and Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speak during the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University on Oct. 4, 2016 in Farmville, Va. (Photo by Andrew Gombert/Pool/Getty)
Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine  and Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speak during the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University on Oct. 4, 2016 in Farmville, Va. 

"Donald Trump during his campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He's called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting. I don't like saying that in front of my wife and my mother. He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a POW, and said he wasn't hero because he'd been captured. He said African-Americans are living in hell. And he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen."If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws, you can't have somebody at the top who demeans every group that he talks about."

Moments later, Pence lamented "the avalanche of insults coming out of Senator Kaine" and questioned whether or not Trump "had said all of the things that you've said he said in the way you said he said them."In reality, however, Kaine's list was accurate. Trump really did say all of those things.It was an exchange that was emblematic of the entire debate. To quote Donald Trump directly is to "insult" him, so Pence simply created an alternate universe in which Trump has maintained a respectful tone and disagrees with many of the key tenets of his own campaign platform.The Indiana governor appears to have won plaudits for his smooth demeanor and even-keeled performance -- which certainly offered a striking contrast to his running mate's antics in last week's debate -- but if we look past the theatrics and focus on the substance, the debate was a bit of a disaster for Pence. The more Kaine went on the offensive, challenging Trump's record and daring Pence to defend it, the more the GOP vice presidential nominee was forced to simply make stuff up.On nuclear proliferation, for example, Kaine noted that Trump has endorsed more nations getting nuclear weapons. "He never said that, senator," Pence replied. Pence was wrong; Trump did say that.On Social Security, Kaine noted that Trump has called the system a "Ponzi scheme" he'd like to see privatized. "All Donald Trump and I have said about Social Security is we're going to meet our obligations to our seniors," Pence replied. "That's it." That's not it; Kaine was right and Pence was wrong.This continued for more than 90 minutes. On abortion, Pence pretended Trump hadn't endorsed "punishing" women. On tax returns, Pence pretended Trump hadn't broken his promise to disclose the materials. On Russia, Pence pretended Trump hadn't praised the Russian autocrat's "leadership." On immigration, Pence pretended Trump didn't call for a new "deportation force" to remove undocumented immigrants already in the United States.I kept waiting for Kaine to turn to his rival and ask, "Have you ever actually met Donald Trump? Have you been paying any attention to the news over the last year and a half?"At another point, Kaine, who'd clearly done his homework, added on the subject of national security:

"Donald Trump can't start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot. Donald Trump doesn't have a plan. He said, 'I have a secret plan,' and then he said, 'Um, I know more than all the generals about ISIL.' And then he said, 'I'm going to call the generals to help me figure out a plan.' And finally he said, 'I'm going to fire all the generals.'"He doesn't have a plan. But he does have dangerous ideas. Here's four. He trash talks the military. 'The military is a disaster, John McCain's no hero, the generals need all to be fired, and I know more than them.' He wants to tear up alliances. 'NATO is obsolete, and we'll only work together with Israel if they pay big league.'"Third, he loves dictators. He's got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein. And last and most dangerously, Donald Trump believes that the world will be safer if more nations have nuclear weapons. He's said Saudi Arabia should get them, Japan should get them, Korea should get them. And when he was confronted with this, and told, wait a minute, terrorists could get those, proliferation could lead to nuclear war, here's what Donald Trump said, and I quote: 'Go ahead, folks, enjoy yourselves.' I'd love to hear Governor Pence tell me what's so enjoyable or comical about nuclear war."

Pence responded, "Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it." Kaine said, "Well, I'm going to see if you can defend any of it." He didn't. The Hoosier quickly shifted into an attack on Hillary Clinton.Later, Pence declared, "I'm very, very happy to defend Donald Trump." Except he didn't. The governor repeatedly let Kaine's condemnations go without challenge, and when Pence did push back, he acted as if Donald Trump was an entirely different person from the one Americans have been watching for quite a while -- all while making the case that it's somehow unfair for Democrats to quote Trump accurately."This isn't the old days where you can just say stuff and people believe it," Pence said at one point. If he's correct, then the Republican ticket has a real problem on its hands.