The Vice-Presidential Debate: Substance and Style

The Vice-Presidential Debate: Substance and Style

The debate between vice-presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence showcased the short-term rewards and long-term risks of adopting an overly aggressive tone.  It also offered an unexpected exchange of ideas by the candidates about their deeply held religious beliefs—a momentary glimpse into how meaningful a debate can be when candidates drop the posturing and simply answer the question.

Turning first to tone:  This presidential race has been chaotic and nasty, due in large part to Mr. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.  His running mate, Mike Pence, needed to show uneasy voters that this ticket contains some steadiness and experience.  Pence focused on this task throughout the debate primarily through employing markers of ethos.  His delivery was largely unflappable.  When Mr. Kaine was on the attack, Pence remained calm.  In one of the most memorable moments of the evening, Pence laid out a plan for American involvement in Syria (apparently his own, not Trump’s), demonstrating the nuance and preparedness that the top of his ticket has lacked:

Pence was usually credible because his tone was steady and measured, a characteristic of Aristotle’s concept of “good sense, good moral sense, and good will.”  Perhaps Pence’s performance will help Trump, by offering uncertain voters a reason to vote for the ticket.  Or perhaps it will hurt Trump, because Trump’s hotheadedness stands in stark contrast to his running-mate’s self-control.

Pence also faced an ethos challenge that he was not entirely able to overcome—Mr. Trump’s record of inflammatory statements. Though Pence said he could defend Mr. Trump’s positions, he did so primarily by deflecting them or simply not responding, a strategy that kept him from having to repeat vitriol that would have eroded his own credibility.  But as Mr. Kaine continued to press Mr. Pence, Pence retreated by insisting that Trump had not said the many troubling things he has, in fact, said.  This is a dangerous strategy.  Facts can be verified.  Many of the statements to which Mr. Kaine alluded have been played time and again in video clips or exist in tweets that have gone viral.  Voters have seen them with their own eyes or heard them with their own ears.  Pence became less believable when he flatly denied statements that voters could easily verify with a quick Google search, which impacts his overall credibility.  This is an important lesson in rhetoric—if you play fast and loose with facts, you may seem to win the sparring match at hand, but you risk losing the ultimate battle for the audience’s trust.

Tim Kaine’s tone was much more pugnacious than Pence’s, particularly in the first moments of the debate.  While Pence was calm and cordial, Kaine interrupted and talked over Pence.  He clearly was prepared to defend his running-mate, but his aggression out of the gate was a mistake in terms of ethos.  He seemed rude and even a little reminiscent of Trump, at least for the first 30 minutes of the debate.  Aristotle wrote that ethos is central to persuasion, that “we believe good men more fully and readily than others.”  The writers of this blog are professors at the University of Virginia; Tim Kaine was our state’s governor and is now our senator, and we know him to be invariably courteous.  But for people who have never before met Tim Kaine, this first impression was not inspiring.  To us, it appears that Kaine has been badly served by advice he received during debate preparation to adopt a tone that is not his usual persona.

Contrast this with an exchange later in the debate, when Mr. Kaine made an argument in favor of gun control and in opposition to stop-and-frisk policies.  Here he demonstrates the thoughtfulness and preparedness required to establish ethos.  You can watch this moment here:

We are not saying that an advocate can’t be aggressive in making a case.  But we are saying that you have to tread carefully.  If conviction oversteps into rudeness, or yelling, or petulance, you will be much less persuasive.

On substance, we reverse the grades.  In terms of logos, Tim Kaine was better: clear, accurate on facts, precise in presenting policy proposals, effective in highlighting Trump’s most vulnerable points (bullying, tax issues, misstatements, a troublesome history in business).  Pence did his best, but the facts of Trump’s conduct are difficult to deal with.  At times, Pence even appeared to advocate policy positions that are out of alignment with Trump’s, such as his assessment of how to deal with Russia and Putin.

Finally, we point your attention to an exchange that took place during the final moments of the debate, when the candidates were asked about how they balance personal faith with public policy positions.  The answers they offered were humble and inspiring, allowing them to connect with one another on a personal level as they expressed respect for each other’s sincere faith.  Notice how they do not agree on the public policy issues they are discussing (the death penalty, abortion).  But also notice how much more persuasive both men are because they have dialed back the heated rhetoric.  It is possible to disagree agreeably.  If more of us could learn to do it, it would benefit our democracy.

You can watch this exchange here:


Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert N. Sayler are professors at the University of Virginia School of Law and the authors of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.

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