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Tim Kaine really didn’t give the VP debate’s female moderator the respect she deserved

Kaine and Democrats can’t just say they respect women. They have to model it.

Vice Presidential Debate Between Gov. Mike Pence And Sen. Tim Kaine Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If Hillary Clinton wins in November, Tim Kaine will be the first male subordinate of the first woman US president. He will be, in a way, the female-authority-respecter-in-chief.

He did not acquit himself well on that count during Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate.

Nominally, the debate was moderated by CBS News’s Elaine Quijano. In practice, it wasn’t exactly moderated at all. Kaine interrupted Pence (and Pence, to a lesser extent, interrupted Kaine) so often that entire minutes of the debate were lost to crosstalk. The two interrupted Quijano at least 27 times, according to USA Today — which is a lot, given how rarely she managed to get a word in edgewise at all.

Quijano is taking most of the blame for the debate’s unruliness. She’s being faulted for not being a more active moderator: Slate’s Isaac Chotiner chided her for failing to regain control of the debate after the interruptions started. At the same time, she’s being chided for being too active: When she tried to get candidates to switch to one topic to another at the end of a 10-minute “segment,” David Axelrod of CNN and Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic criticized her for cutting short interesting conversations.

Neither candidate treated Quijano with particular respect. But Kaine was particularly querulous and disappointing. He’s running as a man who respects women, and in his only debate he simply didn’t show it.

Quijano wasn’t a great moderator. That’s not an excuse for ignoring her.

The idea that a woman like Quijano is put in an impossible position isn’t new — it’s a similar double bind that has been haunting Hillary Clinton all campaign. But it’s also true that Quijano wasn’t a great moderator. Some of the questions she asked, especially at the beginning, were objectively bad. A vice presidential nominee isn’t in a great position to answer the question, “Why do voters think X about your candidate?” nor does that question allow him to respond to the accusation implicit in the question without attacking voters.

Other questions Quijano asked led to extremely interesting discussions — the segments on implicit bias in policing and the role of faith in politics let the candidates to speak sincerely about philosophical differences and respond to each other in a way debates rarely allow.

Much of the blame being placed on Quijano is really the fault of the debate format. It wasn’t Quijano’s fault that she had to interrupt those discussions at the end of each segment: The structure was highly regulated, including the 10-minute segment length, as the result of negotiations between the Commission on Presidential Debates and both campaigns.

At the end of the day, though, what made the debate such a train wreck of decorum wasn’t what Quijano asked but rather the fact that Pence and Kaine didn’t yield to her. By barreling through her interjections, they refused to allow her to, well, moderate the conversation. The result was that the debate was often simply unintelligible.

Vice Presidential Debate Between Gov. Mike Pence And Sen. Tim Kaine
Crosstalk!
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

At one point, in desperation, Quijano actually pointed this out to the candidates: “The people at home cannot understand either one of you when you speak over each other,” she pleaded. “I would please ask you to wait until it is that the other is finished.”

Unable to successfully assert her authority, she had to create a kludge — pleading to their own self-interest in making their cases to the American public — to earn the respect she deserved.

Both candidates interrupted Quijano or simply talked over her with aggressive ease. But it’s clear that Kaine was worse.

Quijano, unlike the first debate moderator’s, Lester Holt (but in line with presidential debate tradition), wasn't inclined to call Pence out when he denied Trump had ever said things Trump totally said — Kaine made that his mission.

But that wasn't an excuse not to show deference to Quijano, or to ignore her attempts to structure the debate. Pursuing a goal while interacting with people who have other goals is just how life works. Ignoring everyone else's goals is a poor solution.

Implicit bias affects everyone. Democrats aren't exempt.

The Trump campaign (led by campaign manager Kellyanne Conway) has been eager to call Kaine a sexist for repeatedly interrupting Quijano the week after Trump was labeled a sexist for repeatedly interrupting Clinton.

Admittedly, this is an established Trump strategy, one that some journalists have taken informally to calling the "I am rubber, you are glue" school of campaign rhetoric. But you have to admit they have something of a point here.

Both Trump and Kaine did a significant amount of interrupting — but the difference between the two, of course, is that Kaine presents himself (and his party presents itself) as the defender of women.

The Clinton-Kaine campaign is not just running against Donald Trump, a man with a particularly long and ugly history of disrespect for women; it’s also running against the anti-abortion conservatism of Republicans like Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana passed a bill requiring women to hold funerals for peapod-size aborted fetuses. To liberals, in particular, Pence's abortion position reveals that he, fundamentally, doesn't respect women enough to give them freedom of choice. When Pence talked about abortion in Tuesday's debate, Kaine cried, "Why don't you trust women?"

This is what's called the fundamental attribution error: assuming that the failures of others are fundamental flaws of character, while your own failings are incidental or simply the result of circumstance. The reality is that you don't get a free pass on sexism by holding particular views about public policy.

Democrats can be sexist too.

Ironically, few in this election have expressed this point as clearly as Tim Kaine himself did Tuesday night — except he wasn't talking about gender but race. When Mike Pence brought up Clinton's "accusation" that police officers were implicitly biased against black men, Kaine patiently explained that implicit bias isn't a deliberate malice in one's heart. Rather, it's something that is often revealed in empirical outcomes — such as disparities in sentences given to people of different races for similar crimes.

Or the treatment of a woman by two men during a presidential debate.

Tim Kaine can’t just say he respects women — he has to model it

A few weeks ago, an anecdote made the rounds about several women in the upper echelons of the Obama administration during the president's first term. The women had realized that they weren't being given credit for their ideas in meetings, so they adopted a strategy of "amplification" -- pointedly repeating each other's ideas, taking care to credit their originators, so that the men in the room could ignore neither the ideas nor the women from which it came.

The internet, by popular acclaim, deemed the anecdote "inspiring." I found it infuriating.

It was a story of men, who ostensibly called themselves feminists and who undoubtedly felt their work helped "women" in the abstract, refusing to treat the actual flesh-and-blood women in their midst with the respect due to colleagues.

Apparently these men were so stubborn or thin-skinned that they couldn't even be told directly to stop talking past women. They couldn't be trusted to trust women. The women around them had to create a kludge to earn the respect they deserved.

And if this is what typical workplace dynamics are like among the people who are trying to elect the first woman president, it's fair to say it's unlikely to be better in most workplaces in America.

If Tim Kaine is elected vice president under President Hillary Clinton, he will be the most prominent male subordinate in America. He'll have to model a professional dynamic that is still uncomfortable or unfamiliar to a lot of Americans: working with a woman without undermining her authority.

If Kaine succeeds, he won't just make a tough job easier for President Clinton. He could be a powerful role model for men all over America who don't think of themselves as sexists, and want to respect women, but who in practice aren't always aware.

He's going to have to keep practicing.

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