The vice presidential debate was a painful exercise in the triumph of style over substance that should trouble every American voter.
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence was declared the winner by numerous pundits and journalists, primarily on "style" points. It was enough for them, apparently, that Pence looked presidential — whatever that means — and was not rattled by a steady stream of attacks from Democratic rival Tim Kaine.
But that is precisely what was so unnerving about Pence's performance. When Kaine repeated well-known statements by Donald Trump about women as pigs, dogs and worse and about Mexicans and Muslims, Pence waved them off as "nonsense" or just plain wrong, shaking his head repeatedly for effect. This even though Kaine's assertions are easily proven, because Trump has said them in public settings. The fact-checking site PolitiFact looked at 32 statements by Kaine and Pence throughout the 90-minute debate. It determined that Kaine was truthful 79 percent of the time. Pence's rating was an abysmal 31 percent.
Kaine was without doubt clumsy and slow-footed in his initial debate outing. He came armed with facts, but appeared overrehearsed, sometimes overstated his claims and lacked the artful polish of Pence, who has years as a radio and TV talk show host under his belt. Trump, too, has benefited from a finely honed theatrical sense gained from more than a decade as a network television star.
But the content of one's words must matter at least as much as how they are said. No democracy can thrive where its citizens are so easily duped by theatrics, unwilling to probe beyond a facile surface.
Pence provided a measure of comfort for uneasy Trump supporters and perhaps for undecideds. He was calm and measured, and he is steeped in Republican ideology on fiscal and social issues. He comes across as what he is — a small-government conservative, through and through. But Pence clearly communicated something else — he was there less as Trump's defender than as someone who badly wants to be able to pick up the pieces once this is over and emerge as a contender in 2020.
In a deft skewering of his would-be boss, Pence responded to one attack on Trump by saying, with a completely straight face: "He's not a politician like you and Hillary Clinton and so things don't always come out the way he means." Thus does a skilled politician put the knife in his opponent and his running mate in one stroke.
Notably, at several points in the debate Pence didn't even attempt to defend Trump's often-offensive statements. That is understandable. He was in the unenviable position of having to stand up for a man who can barely draw a breath without insulting someone. It is easy to see why he often chose to remain silent rather than respond.
The effects of Tuesday's debate won't linger. Well, except perhaps for Pence's deathless comment about "whipping out that Mexican thing" again, which social media has turned into a rallying cry for Hispanics.
What is important as the nation enters the homestretch of one of the most tumultuous elections in modern history is that voters pay close attention to what the candidates say, not just how they say it.