5 takeaways from the vice presidential debate

There was something for everyone. And — in terms of sorting out a clear election frontrunner — possibly nothing for anyone. In their only debate of 2016, the vice-presidential candidates launched into blistering attacks on their opponents’ running mates, stretched time limits into oblivion and also did include significant, thoughtful policy discussions.

Here are five takeaways from the match-up between Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, and Gov. Mike Pence, R-Indiana.

Pence brought the folksy charm

The folksy Midwesterner in Pence came out in full force on Tuesday night. As Kaine interrupted him repeatedly, especially early on in the debate, Pence shook his head, laughed and broke in with the occasional admission of “Nonsense.” But he rarely lost his cool (though he did betray a sense of frustration when Kaine brought up Trump’s past controversial comments.) Instead, Pence came across as a polite everyman, complete with a storybook small-town Indiana childhood that included church on Sunday, a police-officer uncle and a corn field backyard. He even channeled Ronald Reagan by responding to one attack by Kaine with the repurposed Reagan debate line, “There they go again.”

Pence’s stage presence stood in marked contrast to Kaine — or, for that matter, to Vice President Biden, another folksy politician who opted for an amped-up attack-dog approach in his vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan in 2012. But Pence’s down-to-earth personality has its drawbacks on the debate stage as well. At times, his slow, measured delivery seemed a bit too slow, as if he was struggling to keep up with the faster-thinking Kaine on complex policy issues or was pausing to form his answer. And his penchant for aw-shucks honesty sometimes backfired, like the moment when Kaine criticized his position on Syrian refugees, and Pence responded by saying, “If you’re going to be critical of me on that, that’s fair game.” Approving an opponent’s attack is never a good strategy in debates, but Pence stayed true to his brand. It appeals to Republican voters. Whether it’ll help with moderates remains to be seen.

Interrupting rarely works

The Clinton campaign seemed to benefit in the perception of Donald Trump’s repeated interruptions in the first presidential debate. But in a surprising reversal, the team decided to try the treacherous tactic repeatedly itself in the vice presidential debate. Yes, both Sen. Kaine and Gov. Pence interrupted one another, but Kaine was the first and the most audible. He first interrupted about eight minutes into the debate, on Pence’s second answer. (The Indiana governor was charging that Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state led to an emboldened Russia, and Kaine charged back.)

In the first 45 minutes of the debate especially, Kaine struggled to make his interruptions lead to solid moments of connection with the audience. Instead he seemed to trip into a difficult-to-discern tangle of words with Pence and with moderator Elaine Quijano. Pence too lost points at times from this technique. But he seemed to be able to pause after most breakneck verbal fights and regain audience attention. Kaine later was able to make strong anti-Trump arguments, but mostly when he was not interrupting.

Thus, let us proclaim the debate lesson of 2016: choose your battles carefully. Choose your interruptions even more carefully.

Rules do work. And if you have them, use them

Beginning with that first interruption, the candidates controlled the debate. That is not necessarily a negative. Many moderators, including NewsHour founding father Jim Lehrer, believe candidates should be given wide leeway to discuss, debate and argue. But he also advises that moderators must guide the conversation.

This debate went beyond free-form and seemed to lose its value for lack of clear application of rules. While Quijano asked the candidates not to interrupt one another, both quickly figured out that she was not going to do more beyond that. They tested her boundaries and found they were few as the debate regularly veered wildly off the subject she had introduced. Again, that kind of debate can be valuable to see the temperaments of the candidates. But in this case, Quijano had set up nine clear segments and topics. And the candidates blasted past both the topics and her attempts at setting time limits. It may have made it easier for voters to shore up their disdain of politics, but it did not make it any easier to determine what the candidates’ ideas would mean for Americans.

There was actual good policy

Just as the debate seemed to plunge into a Lord-of-the-Rings-worthy freefall, it recovered. At the 25-minute mark, Quijano asked, “Do we ask too much of police officers in this country, and how would you specifically address (their concerns)?” This opened up an important and thoughtful discussion that touched on police fears, stop and frisk, and racial profiling. And this did what debates do best: show a stark contrast between the two campaigns. It was not the last time this would happen.

The two men both clearly grasp foreign policy and offered competing but substantive takes on nuclear weapons, the Iran nuclear deal and how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump interact with Russian leaders. Also in the realm of thoughtful policy debate: Immigration. Kaine and Pence both spelled out their candidates’ plans and pushed back at each other. And in what may be the most overlooked line of the night, Pence pledged to work with Kaine and the Senate on immigration reform down the road.

Evenly-matched debates don’t produce big winners or losers

Hillary Clinton emerged the clear winner in the first presidential debate. But she won against an opponent with significantly less debating experience, so she went in with a clear advantage. (It only hurt Trump further that he didn’t prepare.) The vice-presidential debate, on the other hand, was between two veteran politicians who both have a relatively solid grasp of policy details. Both Kaine and Pence participated in numerous debates before — though never on the national stage — and came into Tuesday night’s showdown with the expectation of giving solid performances.

Their equal footing ensured that neither candidate would dominate the debate. Kaine and Pence got some good points in; Kaine on Trump’s tax records, for example, and Pence on the Clinton Foundation. But they were able to effectively parry each other’s attacks, meaning that neither one went unchallenged for long. That makes for an unsatisfying conclusion for supporters on both sides who wanted their candidate to come out the clear winner. But it also means that both Kaine and Pence avoided major gaffes and got their main talking points in while keeping the focus firmly on the top of the ticket. In a vice-presidential debate, that’s all the participants can hope for.

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