This debate took place in the backdrop of the first presidential debate a week ago, where Donald Trump buckled when pressed about his aggravating comments surrounding women, Muslims, Mexicans and even the birther issue. Trump responded to those charges by being even more aggravating. Governor Mike Pence came to this debate as a very different character; he was the calm and composed face of an increasingly erratic and errant Trump campaign — polished, calm and professional. Pence is also a former radio talk show host, so he is a seasoned expert on how to conduct himself on panel debates. But for me, there was very little substance beneath the exterior of Trump’s firefighter. Senator Tim Kaine, on the other hand, was overall a far more serious candidate. He came across far more statesman-like, addressing key and often difficult issues facing Americans and doing so skillfully and sensitively, and always remaining in sync with Hillary Clinton’s presidential agenda throughout.
It was an extremely strong demonstration of his competence and ability to become vice president — someone who understands what it takes to lead a country. I found that Pence simply did not give the impression that he really understands what it takes, and ultimately, he was nothing more than a man who possessed attributes that Trump doesn’t have — calmness, etiquette and professionalism. In that respect, he may have helped Trump by shaking off some of the toxic narratives that have become a permanent feature of the Trump campaign, perhaps to the relief of the GOP. But it was too little, lacking substance, and not even close to sufficient in order to distance the Trump campaign from its own toxicity — from openly stoking racism and perpetuating sexism and misogyny, to alienating allies abroad and calling for draconian (and constitutionally questionable) measures such as stop and frisk. That toxicity was quite apparent in the debate, and even Mike Pence struggled to shake it off. He did not defend any of Trump’s recent aggravations, and yet insisted that people should vote Trump; there laid his greatest weakness — asking the American people to vote for a man he cannot defend. It was a disingenuous position to take, to say the least, and one that I do not believe will fool the American people.
Kaine, on the other hand, was consistent, assured and showed that he has a plan to lead the country — a man who is confident and proud of what he stands for. As a proud Muslim American, I was also pleasantly surprised at the fact that religion guides Tim Kaine. His attitude on how religious beliefs and practices should be left to individuals and not imposed by government (or any others) is something that resonates with me — it is precisely how I and many other Muslim Americans view ourselves in the broader American society.
What’s more, with all the attacks and berating of women we have seen recently from the Trump campaign, it was very refreshing to see a confident man with strong beliefs proclaiming to be a leading supporter of Hillary Clinton. It was a dramatic contrast from his counterpart, who refused to defend some of the things Trump stands for and says — it draws a very vivid picture of the two Americas that are on offer in this election.
What’s more, I think that overall, this debate will benefit the Hillary Clinton campaign. Tim Kaine gave us a clear vision of America under the leadership of Clinton, one that would be characterized by respect, acceptance, diversity and optimism. Mike Pence may have helped the Trump campaign by presenting a softer image of Donald Trump to the American people, but he fundamentally fell short of convincing Americans that Donald Trump can lead the country. By refusing to defend some of Trump’s actions, Pence himself fittingly highlighted just how unpalatable the Donald Trump rhetoric is to so many Americans.
For Muslim Americans, I think it is quite clear that Tim Kaine was the candidate that resonated for them. Mike Pence did not do himself any favors by tacitly trying to perpetuate some of Trump’s lies, and in some instances, even pretending that some of Trump’s antics had not happened; it is something Muslim Americans would have undoubtedly noted. But above all, it is important to remember that people do not focus too much on specific sentences or lines from a candidate. They want to draw an overall picture, and in that respect, I think Tim Kaine is the overwhelmingly more convincing candidate.
Muslim Americans will see in one a vision of tolerance, respect, diversity and acceptance; and will see in the other a vision of fear, anxiety, hate and suspicion. It is that overarching vision which will have influenced many Muslim Americans, particularly those who are still undecided on how to vote.
*Editor’s note: The Islamic Monthly reached out to the Muslim Republican to submit her response, but it was not received for this debate.