Since we live in a sound-bite world, here’s my excessively glib summary of the vice-presidential debate: Kaine was able and Pence made sense (mostly).
The debate should be remembered as Throwback Thursday. It was an homage to the days when political parties nominated candidates as flashy as Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole.
Never before in history have two vice presidential candidates as little known as Tim Kaine (red tie) and Mike Pence (blue tie) met on a debate stage. Before the debate began, a CBS News poll found that 67 percent of registered voters had no impression of Kaine and 57 percent drew a blank slate about Pence.
During the 1970s, American Express launched a memorable ad campaign in which minor celebrities like puppeteer Jim Henson faced the camera and asked, “Do you know me?”
This could have been billed as the “Do you know me?” debate. Now that it is over — with few memorable moments likely to be immortalized in debate lore — what have we learned about both second bananas?
The debate is certain to be overanalyzed for its political ramifications. But it is more likely that this debate was just a fleeting burst of normalcy in a dispiriting campaign pivoting around attacks on a Gold Star mother, a former Miss Universe and a $916-million tax loss.
What we saw was a whirlwind tour of the political talking points that both sides believe will attract wavering voters. As disciplined candidates, Kaine and Pence must have gladdened the hearts of their handlers.
The debaters displayed their strategies from the outset with no obvious trapdoors or bait-and-switch tactics.
Kaine’s goal was to remind undecided moderate viewers of every single extreme statement that Trump, the bilious billionaire, had ever made. Pence was the reasonable-sounding candidate of amnesia — shaking his head “No” like a metronome and absurdly claiming that Trump had never insulted anyone and had never developed a fan-boy crush on Vladimir Putin.
With Kaine, in particular, the rehearsed rhetoric was painfully obvious — whether it was calling Pence “Donald Trump’s apprentice” or declaring that the GOP nominee “can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot.”
Sometimes Kaine’s lines probably worked better in the practice debates than at the table with Pence. It seemed an overreach when the Virginia senator talked of Trump’s love of dictators and then hyperbolically claimed, “He’s got a kind of personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein.”
Pence responded to Kaine’s riff by saying in a deceptively mild voice, “Did you work on that one a long time? Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.” But the Indiana governor could also come across as a synthetic politician, especially when he tried to update Ronald Reagan’s famed “There you go again” debate line.
There were moments in the debate when it seemed possible that in a post-Trump era, a note of civility may return to politics.
Even though both would-be vice presidents often ignored moderator Elaine Quijano — and Kaine in particular seemed to have taken a crash course in Trumpian interruptions — neither candidate ever shouted or used language that couldn’t be repeated in polite company.
In fact, when they got away from talking points, there were even moments of surprising harmony. After Kaine, a former mayor of Richmond, praised community policing, Pence chimed in, “Let me say, at the risk of agreeing with you, community policing is a great idea. It’s worked in the Hoosier state.”
Toward the end of the debate, the two candidates had an earnest and thoughtful disagreement over abortion. Kaine, a practicing Catholic, talked about government not imposing its will on pregnant women — and, instead, trusting them to make the right decisions. Pence, an evangelical Christian, declared, in a line that may accompany him long into the future, “I couldn’t be more proud to stand with Donald Trump who is standing for the right to life.”
In the end, Kaine probably scored more political points with his repetitive tour of Trump’s epithets and invective. In technical terms, Pence may have had the better debate — especially since he was defending (or ducking) an irresponsible ticket mate.
Does it matter much?
Probably not. In 2012, the energetic — and sometimes acerbic — face-off between Vice President Joe Biden and Paul Ryan had little lasting influence on the voters. As political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck write in “The Gamble,” their analysis of the 2012 campaign, “The debate did not move the polling average or succeed in rallying … wavering Democrats, but vice presidential debates rarely have much effect.”
Political scientists will probably reach a similar conclusion after Nov. 8, as the Virginia Valium Veep debate fades from memory.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.