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The vice presidential debate: Not a game-changer, but a seed-planter

What does it say about an election, and a system, in which a debate is won primarily on style, and not on substance?

Last night Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence sat down for the first and only Vice Presidential debate. Given the hype and histrionics of the ongoing Clinton–Trump saga, the VP debate promised an almost comical contradiction in style and swagger: These dudes put the "square" in squared off. And in the end, it truly was a more sedate affair than last week's main event. In fact, when you see what a conversation that values substance over salaciousness actually looks like, you realize why we're in the mess we're in.

The low-key debate's biggest fireworks came from an over-amped Tim Kaine, whose constant interrupting did him no favors, and cost him the debate with most pundits. (The GOP counted over 70 interruptions, and made this handy supercut compiling each one. They did not make any such video after the first Presidential debate, for obvious reasons.) Aside from Kaine's Trump-like interruptive ways, he and Pence operated like modified versions of their own running mates: Kaine as the technocratic, fact-based, overly eager wonk offering overly prepared lines that fell flat (a botched Apprentice pun, though no wholly original works like Hillary's "Trumped up trickle down"); Pence as the telegenic charmer who clearly has a history in media (he hosted a conservative talk-radio show before his career in politics, dubbing himself "Rush Limbaugh on decaf" — and it showed).

By most polls and critics, Pence won by virtue of his style, which was even-keeled and thereby more "presidential," or at least a soothing balm for those put off by Trump's erratic bluster, slathered on by Pence's chosen tactic of denial — an avuncular grin, and a constant head shake.(Republicans will say he reminded them of President Reagan, most explicitly when he offered up the call back "There they go again" line). But style aside, today's fact checking won’t favor the Indiana governor. Pence did succeed where Trump couldn’t in smoothly sliding away from any unfavorable Trump quotes or positions, dodging Kaine's inconvenient barbs in real time. (Contrast to Trump at the presidential debate, who took the bait each time Hillary laid it out, and was still defending his handling of Miss Universe Alicia Machado a full week after he left the debate stage.)

Still, Pence had the better night. He did so well, in fact, that reports from Trump's camp say "Pence did well for Pence, but not with Trump," suggesting Donald didn't like Mike's walking away from his record, not defending him, while earning praise for himself.

All told, this VP debate won't change the trajectory of the race. But it will plant a few seeds:

1. Pence Slowed the Clinton Momentum. Or at least, the downward spiral of Team Trump, which had a bad debate, a worse week after with Trump's attacks on Miss Universe, and an even worse following weekend when the New York Times published his tax returns from 1995, showing he claimed a $916 million loss, and suggested that, as a result, he may not have paid federal taxes for the next 18 years. Yeah, Pence may not have won the race for Trump, but he probably put a cork in all that other noise. And he may just have given cover to undecideds -- or solace to Republicans -- looking to feel more secure in a vote for Donald.

2. Millennials Still Out to Dry. Young people certainly didn't hear much of their values reflected back at them, and this falls more on the moderator and on Kaine (as Clinton needs to mobilize young voters to win more than does Trump). There was no talk of climate change, student loans, not even criminal justice reform. There were, however, references to $64,000 Question, a show which aired in the late '50s.

3. Pence 2020. Mostly this debate served as a showcase for Pence’s own presidential run, which you can mark for either 2020 or 2024, depending on how this election turns out. Not only did the Indiana governor win the debate, but he did so without defending Trump's more toxic statements, which will bode well for him down the road, and may make for a cold, cold couple of weeks around Donald.

But perhaps most importantly: What does it say about an election, and a system, in which a debate is won primarily on style, and not on substance, particularly when that style is full of smiling and denying things as false when they're true, amid easily verifiable via video clips (like this one, by Team Hillary)? The fact that Pence undoubtedly earned points with his base (and perhaps others) by dogging Kaine for coming prepared ("did you work on that one a long time?") — as if preparation is a bad thing — points to an era of anti-intellectualism, which is going to make for increasingly unpredictable elections, and ones that are increasingly difficult to make sense of.

In any event, both sides have a few days to spin what they can out of this before the next presidential debate on Sunday night, moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Will Trump learn from Pence's performance, or make the cardinal sin of actually trying to defend the things he says? Stay tuned, as this bananas election continues...

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