Vice President Debate: Rapid Reaction

Bob Shire

The Vice Presidential debate featured the two men who would be a heartbeat away from the presidency should the President, who will very likely either be the oldest or second-oldest in history to begin their first term, fall ill. While the scenario is unlikely, it's also critically important to guard against.

Both Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence, who each sport long political resumes, came in with a set of talking points that they returned to repeatedly and in a tiresome fashion. More policy substance was debated than the Presidential debate, particularly foreign policy, but the much-hyped political issues of tax returns, emails, and Vladimir Putin were repeatedly dredged up. A few thoughtful but often predictable discussions, such as on abortion late in the 95 minutes, punctuated a debate where two different styles and approaches clashed unproductively. Even when they agreed on the substance of the questions, the two candidates sparred over ancillary issues tenuously tied to any given question's subject matter.

Governor Pence came in wanting to project the image of a civilized, quiet, kind, and thoughtful leader. He had a rough night, largely because of his inability to defend or explain some of Donald Trump's policy positions or statements. His answers were often long and winding, did not address the topics directly, and favored platitudes over compelling specifics. The Trump campaign's challenges with detailed foreign policy solutions were on display more acutely than in the Presidential debate, and Pence papered over key points in favor of describing the Obama-Clinton foreign policy as weak and the Trump-Pence foreign policy as strong. For example, he cited expanding the Navy as a supporting point in a question about helping civilians in Aleppo; while not 100 percent unrelated, it was emblematic of the generalities expressed in the debate.

Senator Kaine had more policy specifics, and occasionally delved into the details, but he was far too aggressive throughout the debate, particularly at the outset. He was too eager to interrupt Mr. Pence and speak over him on almost every question (in a style of politics popularized by cable news), and that eagerness was paralleled by a willingness to use punchy talking points repeatedly (in a style of politics popularized, at least in part, by Twitter) against a seemingly much more polite Mr. Pence.

It was a clash of styles that did not suit either the candidate from the East Coast or the one from the Midwest, and both suffered from it. Mr. Kaine was too quick to jump down Mr. Pence's throat with talking points rather than disarming him with policy specifics, and Mr. Pence had too little of substance to provide when he was given time to speak uninterrupted.