News of the Tautological

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on October 6, 2016

News of the Tautological

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.

News of the Tautological
“As Demand for Cars Falters, Auto Prices Are Poised to Fall”—headline, Associated Press, Oct. 4

Bottom Story of the Day
“No Creepy Clown Sightings in El Paso”—headline, El Paso Times, Oct. 4

How Do You Spell Potato?
Sometimes you wonder if commentators—or is that common taters—think about what they write. This is from Chris Cillizza’s roundup of debate winners on the Washington Post website:

* Mike Pence: From the very beginning, Pence was the more comfortable of the two men on the debate stage. Pence repeatedly turned to the camera when he answered questions, making clear he understood that the real audience wasn’t in the room but watching on TV. The Indiana governor was calm, cool and collected throughout—a stark contrast to the fast-talking (and seemingly nervous) [Tim] Kaine. . . .

* Orioles vs. Blue Jays: For most of the 95 minutes or so that the debate lasted, it was borderline unwatchable. There was so much cross talk and so little actual question-answering that it felt like watching two kids throw mashed potatoes at each other.

So two kids are throwing mashed potatoes at each other, and one of them is calm, cool and collected. What’s wrong with that picture?

By common consensus Mike Pence did well in the vice presidential debate, and many people are saying the man at the top of the GOP ticket, Donald Trump, is none too pleased.

“Pence won overall, but lost with Trump,” a “senior Trump adviser” tells CNBC’s John Harwood an hour or so after the debate ended. “He can’t stand to be upstaged.” At roughly the same time, the Puffington Host’s Sam Stein tweeted: “CNN’s John King, reporting from a source close to Trump, that the reviews that Pence did better then he did won’t go over well with Trump.”

This is pretty thin stuff, is it not? It’s based on anonymous sources—or maybe a single source, as it’s possible Harwood and King were talking to the same person. It does not appear as if the source or sources were describing Trump’s response, only anticipating it; King’s source, assuming Stein’s paraphrase is accurate (we couldn’t find the transcript of postdebate commentary on CNN’s website), is explicit on that point.

It falls into the category of amusing gossip—though we suppose it’s possible the Trump campaign put it out deliberately in order to set up expectations of an erratic Trump reaction, against which Trump’s actual response would look statesmanlike.

And there were no 3 a.m. Trump tweets lashing out at Pence. Just after the debate, he tweeted: “Mike Pence won big. We should all be proud of Mike!” Then, at 9:28 a.m. ET today: “The constant interruptions last night by Tim Kaine should not have been allowed. Mike Pence won big!” (To be sure, it is funny that Trump would complain about interruptions.)

But Ezra Klein of the young-adult website Vox went with the story in today’s early hours:

Here’s a question you wouldn’t normally have to ask after a vice presidential candidate turned in a widely praised debate performance: Will the presidential nominee completely fly off the handle tomorrow?

But this isn’t a normal year. . . .

Trump might respond by patting Pence on the back. A win’s a win. Or, as John King and John Harwood’s reporting suggests, he might respond with fury. Trump doesn’t like to be upstaged. He prizes loyalty above all else. His political style is almost entirely based on asserting dominance over other men.

That was pure speculation, though Trump’s initial postdebate tweet, not noted by Klein, supported the pat-on-the-back theory.

Klein’s conclusion, though, is priceless, and also emblematic of how journalism has gone badly wrong during this campaign: “It perhaps bears noting that the fact that these reports are even remotely plausible speaks to the immaturity of the Republican nominee, and his manifest unfitness for office.”

The “fact” that the “reports” are “plausible” is a fact about Klein—he is willing to believe them—not about Trump. According to Klein, his own willingness to believe these unverifiable claims about Trump is evidence that his broader anti-Trump bias is well-founded. We would say his willingness to believe them is part and parcel of his bias.

That said, we would also acknowledge that Trump benefited from his own absence on the debate stage. Like Hillary Clinton in last week’s presidential debate, Kaine spent much of his time baiting his counterpart with various accusations (some true, some not) about Trump. Unlike Trump, Pence seldom took the bait, instead turning the discussion to policy or to Mrs. Clinton’s manifold corruptions.

It’s an example Trump would do well to follow in the remaining two debates, this coming Sunday and two weeks from tonight. Clearly the Clinton-Kaine campaign’s strategy for the debates is to keep the focus on Trump’s shortcomings, real and alleged, and Trump’s defensiveness during the last hour of last week’s debate permitted that approach to succeed. When Pence declined to cooperate, Kaine showed no signs of having a Plan B.

We found Pence to be more impressive than any candidate who ran for president this year, in either party. The comparison may be unfair: Pence never had to debate Trump, and the multicandidate primary debate format tends to make everyone look small. But we saw a bit of Reagan in Pence, the white hair notwithstanding. With his calm demeanor and soothingly authoritative voice, he came across as serious and mature.

As for Kaine, he smiled a lot and was full of energy. But he didn’t seem cheerful so much as pleased with himself, in the manner of an obsequious schoolboy keen to impress an authority figure. That was especially the case when he got through his set pieces about Trump’s taxes and his various outlandish comments.

To which Pence responded with a Reaganesque disdain: “Did you work on that one a long time?” he said at one point. “Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.” At one point Pence even said, “There they go again,” reprising the most famous Reagan line from his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter. (Reagan delivered it a lot better.)

In July, after Trump named Pence as his running mate, the New York Times published a profile titled “Mike Pence: A Conservative Proudly Out of Sync With His Times”:

With his formal bearing, shiny helmet of white hair and carefully chosen, slowly delivered words, he is a throwback in his demeanor. With his deep social conservatism, public religiosity and aversion to negative campaigning, he is a throwback in his political style.

We had something of the same feeling as we watched Pence last night, not about his “social conservatism” or “religiosity” but about his style. He reminded us of a time when candidates for national office, especially Republican ones, affected a serious and thoughtful—critics would say stodgy—demeanor.

On the Republican side, that time wasn’t very long ago at all: Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both fit the stereotype. By contrast, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, each in his own way, cultivated a hip, loose rock-star persona. This was the year in which Republican voters yielded to star power. Pence is a comfort to those who don’t think that was a good idea.

For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.