Who won the vice presidential debate? A national champion debate professor has grades

Tim Kaine, 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, left, and Mike Pence, 2016 Republican vice presidential nominee, speak Tuesday during the vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.
Tim Kaine, 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, left, and Mike Pence, 2016 Republican vice presidential nominee, speak Tuesday during the vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. Bloomberg

The Vice Presidential debate Tuesday night featured a role reversal of sorts from the last month’s presidential debate. This time, it was the Democrat who was the more visible aggressor, with the Republican coolly deflecting criticism. Who was more effective?

We’re happy to welcome back Wake Forest political communications professor Allan Louden, who had grades for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton after their Sept 29 debate. Louden is a national champion debate coach who has worked with politicians such as Elizabeth Dole. He began grading debates and speeches for us back in 2008.

Louden says Tuesday night’s debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence wasn’t supposed to be consequential, and it probably lived down to that expectation. But one candidate had a better night.

Here, in his words, is how he saw it:

Vice presidential debates are seldom of consequence. Arguably, Vice Presidents are seldom of consequence, unless, of course, chance happens.

The VP debate Tuesday was hardly expected to have political import. In an election dominated by outsized personalities and a media with a crush on the horserace, there is not enough oxygen left for even a small flame flickering after the Farmville event.

Certainly the half-life of the debate will be short, hardly radioactive; no game-change zingers. The VP candidates arrived on stage basically unseen, refugees from fund-raisers and indigenous media; they entered invisible and exited invisible. Predictions that the debate would cure insomnia, Vanilla personified, however was not the case. Fireworks and spirited exchanges, pervaded, but with little residue.

The debaters in Tuesday’s ritual were charged with doing much.

Mike Pence’s chore was to be the VP “explainer in chief” filling in the blanks, making coherent the unstated assumptions that characterize Trump’s pronouncements. He had a lot of work to do, with Trump seemingly taking Lusitania broadsides every day for weeks. But he labored well, explaining the ideological big picture, using stories and narrative to humanize, allowing the audience to feel.

Tim Kaine’s onus was to be? Was to be?? Was to be. . . well, it’s not clear what his job should be. Often VP candidates lay in wait, attack dogs undercutting the opposition, yet how was more attack possible with Trump already taking on water from multiple torpedoes? But attack dog Kaine was, in practiced cadence.

Kaine’s over-prepped aggression segued with interruptions, repetition and hackneyed talking points. At times he was out-and-out impetuous. Maybe he would have been better served by kindly talking to the folks of rural Virginia and reminding disaffected Republicans why they’re apart from their party.

For the most part, Pence’s tone embodied humble, adorned in human narratives. Pence was successful in parrying Kaine’s laundry list of indictments, often calling him out directly for offering practiced political bromides. In a too-planned slice, Kaine quipped “Do you want a ‘you’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton or do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president in Donald Trump?” Pence dished back: “I appreciated the ‘you’re hired,’ ‘you’re fired’ thing, Senator. You use that a whole lot. And I think your running mate used a lot of pre-done lines.”

Kaine ended up doing his job, reminding voters the election was about an individual unfit to be president. But while many of his charges merited airing, he often took it one level too far, making the debate one long slogan of what Trump said.

Using familiar political snippets in place of argument, Kaine also often sacrificed his own point. How many times can you say “avoided paying taxes” (an issue raised nine times)? This brickbat cadence allowed Pence to be indignant, the reluctant reprimand, offering dismissive lines like “Did you work on that one a long time?”

In Kaine’s defense, when unshackled from debate prep and packaged talking points, when he was Kaine, conviction followed. More often the exchanges went something like this: Kaine gained ground on immigration fairness, which Pence calmly canceled appealing to resident fears. Kaine trumpeted Hillary’s foreign policy experience, yet Pence dispensed by recounting a solider killed in Iraq, with a resolve that persuaded.

The ugliest moment of the debate was an extended exchange of which party leader engaged in the most insults. Each side seemed grounded, buoyed by our own eye-witness certainty “I’ve seen Trump and Hillary make those statements,” from “fat pig” to “deplorables,” neither dignified nor particularly additive. When in slugfest mode the debate devolved to the level of the general campaign. The debate was pleasing (and informative) when civility and reason provided an oasis from an inflammatory milieu.

An emerging narrative post-debate is that Pence failed by not defending Trump enough. That is not the debate I witnessed. Pence defended trump with vigor, even in arenas where there seems to be no ground. The difference was that Trump talks in headlines, while Pence talked in ideological frames, offering explanation for a Trump rant in a larger context. Pence defended; it’s just that some don’t think that defense is possible.

Framed to be inconsequential, overall the debate was not about being a “heartbeat away” or seeking solutions, but rather another segment of the Clinton and Trump roadshow, with VP surrogates soon to disappear.

Now back to the main event.

Grades: Kaine B- Pence A-