Mike Pence, left, and Tim Kaine, leave the stage after...

Mike Pence, left, and Tim Kaine, leave the stage after the vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. Credit: AP

Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate in Virginia was mostly its own unique brand of horrible, but the candidates did echo their top-of-the-ticket partners in one way: If what makes you happy is an array of five-point plans to address every situation, Democrat Tim Kaine is as much up your alley as Hillary Clinton is. If the candidates who can sway you do so by triggering emotions like patriotism, faith and traditional values, Republican Mike Pence fills that bill, much as Donald Trump has.

But no matter who the viewers thought won, most of them are unlikely to walk away from the debate heartened about the quality of the nation’s political discourse. The two bickered and squabbled, and displayed nary a speck of true vision between them over a 90-minute debate that felt much longer.

As embarrassing as it was when the GOP accidentally released a post declaring Pence had won the debate even before it started, the move also seemed to sum up the tone of the presidential contest. Neither side is listening to the other, nothing can change anyone’s mind and truth is just a matter of opinion. 

Kaine, who has been a mayor, U.S. senator and the governor of Virginia, is also known for his religious faith and “Mr. Nice Guy” persona. So his boorish behavior, particularly with constant interrupting early in the debate, was both disconcerting and disappointing. In debating terms, Kaine scored point after point for policy, mastery of facts and the pointedness of his attacks. 

But he likely didn’t make new friends for his boss.

Pence, who has been a member of the House and the governor of Indiana and is also known for his Christian faith, got his start in broadcasting, and it showed. His resting “I’m listening respectfully” face was perfect, his tone was friendly, his manner was ingratiating. But he repeatedly failed to answer Kaine’s attacks on Trump, which just consisted of Kaine quoting Trump’s own statements. Pence passed on several opportunities to defend his boss, and mostly stayed true to himself and conservative GOP principles like tax cuts, strong defense and ending abortion. 

Trump really has said women who get abortions must be punished, millions of immigrants here illegally must be deported, Russian leader Vladimir Putin outshines Barack Obama, and U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, isn’t really a hero because he was captured. Trump also has furthered the idea that Obama was not born in America.

Confronted with Trump’s own statements, Pence alternated between denying Trump has said those things and denying that Trump meant them. But here he was dogged by the extraordinary nature of Trump’s campaign: the opposition need only repeat the New York billionaire’s own words to make him sound reckless, foolish and unkind.

Who won? Kaine on substance, Pence on style. But thanks to this mostly terrible exchange, bigger questions have now arise about our national political conversation.

When did we get so small? When did our reach and grasp narrow so much that we could go through debate after debate without anyone championing a big idea? There was in this event and has been in this race no moonshot, no plea to end poverty or plan to create new industry, no hope for real peace, no promise of a better tomorrow.

There is only the nitpicking and nattering of little people with little ideas, snide asides and petty protestations over personal attacks.

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