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The Interrupter and the Evader

At the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence had to dodge Donald Trump’s past statements, while Tim Kaine had to pummel with them. The winner depends on what matters to you: style or substance?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Tuesday night, Mike Pence was a very good card player who was dealt a very bad hand. Whether he “won” the vice presidential debate against Tim Kaine comes down to whether you grade based on theatrics or substance. Or whether you — like much of the pundit class — are trying to predict which of those two values is likely to leap from the TV screen into the brain of the American voter. Let us explore.

The veep debate “comes at a critical point,” as the newspaper cliché goes. Donald Trump’s team spent the last week rambling about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, his “genius” tax-avoidance habits, and Hillary Clinton’s sex life. It was the worst of the Trump campaign. Today, Clinton’s odds of winning edged toward 75 percent in Nate Silver’s election forecast.

Pence had one job. As much as humanly possible, he wanted to reframe the choice facing voters as one that pitted a normal Republican versus a normal Democrat. Kaine had the opposite job. He didn’t want anyone to forget the overweening abnormality of the Republican nominee. Kaine wanted to lash Trump’s rhetoric to Pence, on subjects ranging from Mexican immigrants to Vladimir Putin to women, and force Pence to defend his running mate.

Kaine, because of his narrow mission, went on the attack right away. He was clumsy about it. On the debate’s third question, he interrupted Pence’s answer about Trump’s temperament by saying, “You guys love Russia.” When Pence continued, Kaine interjected again: “and paid few taxes and lost a billion a year.”

On the next section, about the economy, Kaine unveiled the first of many canned lines: the “‘you’re hired’ president” vs. the “‘you’re fired’ president.” These are the lead balloons of debates, but politicians use them all the time. The funny thing is, if you watch Kaine’s 2012 Senate debate against George Allen, you’ll find that he doesn’t much like naked aggression. He prefers to smile. He likes to use his hands soothingly and theatrically. He looks like a guy in a suburban office park conducting an HR seminar.

Faced with an opponent who wouldn’t stop quoting Trump’s nasty rhetoric, Pence had two moves. He could pretend the rhetoric wasn’t true. Did Trump (and Pence) praise Putin? Of course not — well, not in so many words, anyway. Second, Pence could just not engage at all. Several times, Kaine used a version of the line, “I’d love to hear Governor Pence defend [terrible thing Trump said].” Pence barely defended anything.

When Kaine attacked Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, Pence unveiled a third move. He tried to use the sheer repetition of the attack against Kaine — as if merely saying a devastating line over and over was an affliction of a career politician. “You use that a whole lot,” Pence grumbled. Another time, evoking Ronald Reagan: “There they go again …”

Pence was far better when he was soldiering on with a standard-issue Republican campaign that Trump isn’t actually running. He delivered age-old GOP agitprop about the “Russian bear” — which is fine unless you and the bear are in a scheme to market honey together. Of North Korean nukes, Pence declared, “We’re going to go back to the days of peace through strength.” He charged that Hillary Clinton will raise taxes and Obama “almost doubled the national debt.”

Through the campaign, both men have talked like they were running to be vice president of Mayberry. But only Pence stuck to the affect tonight. His voice was removed and sonorous. He praised Kaine just enough (saluting his Catholic faith, for instance) to take the edge off the attacks that would certainly come. Pence is a “small-town boy,” as he put it, who talks like a small-town bank manager.

The funny thing is, the debate got more interesting when both men dropped their mantles. Kaine, in particular, showed that he could debate the issues just fine. In the campaign’s fifth section, which focused on immigration, Kaine did his campaign’s best job yet of evoking the horror of Trump’s immigration policy:

And then to the beloved catchphrase:

Kaine added the same emotional punch in the next section of the debate, which focused on terrorism:

Pence interjected: “That’s absolutely false.”

Kaine continued:

It was canned, but it had the force of moral power.

The debate’s penultimate question, which turned into an argument about abortion, was also interesting. I’m not sure any new ground was tilled, but what was interesting was that abortion appeared in the campaign at all (Trump doesn’t much talk about it), and that Kaine was so eager to go there: “Let’s talk about abortion and choice.” An exchange like that probably favors Pence — not because he won, but because it sounds like an exchange we might have in a normal election. But this is not that.

For his part, Trump couldn’t stand merely being the subtext tonight. As when he upstaged his own convention by calling in to Bill O’Reilly’s show, he promised to live-tweet the debate, thereby commanding the second screen. But the live-tweet was mostly a bust — Trump’s account was obviously turned over to henchmen who were spoon-feeding oppo research to the retweeting public. (We are all in the spin room now.)

The only notable change I noticed was that Trump starting using more capital letters than normal. So let us indulge him: BOTH MEN EXECUTED THEIR PLANS TONIGHT. BOTH WILL CLAIM VICTORY. I THINK KAINE WON ON SUBSTANCE. AND SUBSTANCE IS MORE IMPORTANT. BUT THAT’S ME. SEE YOU SUNDAY.