The vice presidential debate on Tuesday night was not as billed by the media villagers in their pre-game analysis. Nice guys Kaine and Pence square off in VP debate. Things got a little testy, with quite a few interruptions by the candidates and lots of cross-talk, with admonishments from the  moderator.

GymnastThe pundits after the debate talked as if they were scoring a gymnastics meet: Mike Pence won on “style points” because he was “unflappable” under relentless efforts by Tim Kaine to get him to defend the outrageous statements and positions of his running mate, Donald Trump. Pence dodged and deflected Kaine’s jabs, and proved to be a smooth liar, “conjuring a candidate who does not exist.” Mike Pence struggles to defend the indefensible.

Tim Kaine won on the “technical proficiency” of substantive issues, but he was oddly criticized for being “over prepared” with the facts and 5 point plans for Hillary Clinton, while explaining Trump’s positions as well.

I’m guessing Pence’s high marks came from the Eastern Bloc judges led by Russia.

I think Judd Legum at Think Progress gets it exactly right: it is the post-debate spin that matters.

Legum writes, Kaine lost the night but won the morning:

Tim Kaine’s performance in last night’s vice presidential debate was not always easy to watch. He interrupted the moderator and his opponent, Mike Pence, too often. His points were repetitive and occasionally came off as overly scripted.

It gave viewers the impression that Pence was perhaps making very powerful points that Kaine was desperately trying to derail.

Meanwhile, Pence appeared the more reasonable of the two. At times, he was almost a cartoon character of a reasonable person, but it was a much slicker presentation that, on the surface, seemed more competent and confident.

So it’s not surprising that, when the debate ended, a narrow majority of viewers thought that Pence won.

But as the sun rose, a different narrative of the debate emerged.

At this point, it’s important to note that Tim Kaine is a lawyer. Sometimes lawyers cross-examine witnesses, breaking them down in real time for the judge and jury. That’s not what Kaine did last night.

Last night, Kaine conducted a deposition. In a deposition, a lawyer questions a witness outside of the courtroom, but everything is recorded and can be used later on. These aren’t flashy or scripted affairs. A deposition can be repetitive and boring. But over many hours, a skilled lawyer can get what he wants out of a witness.

What Kaine wanted to accomplish last night was to force Pence to react to some of Trump’s most outrageous statements. This was important both to remind people that Trump said those things and to place Pence in the uncomfortable position of having to react defend.

He pivoted to that topic again and again.

* * *

In all, Kaine used the word “defend” eighteen times in a 90-minute debate. At one point, he summarized his efforts.

“Six times tonight, I have said to Governor Pence, ‘I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next.’ And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate,” Kaine said.

Indeed, Pence’s strategy in most cases was to simply to deny that Trump said things that he had actually said. That was a mistake.

The tactic set up the Hillary Clinton campaign to produce this powerful video in the morning.

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Of course, that can be easily dismissed as campaign spin. But the idea that Pence both denied reality and refused to defend Trump sunk in with the media as well.

CNN produced a video that was very similar to the one produced by the campaign.

Politico also noticed Pence’s tactic and presented their conclusion in stark terms: 6 things Trump definitely said that Pence claimed he didn’t.

As did the Washington Post: Aftermath of Kaine-Pence debate pits reality against alternate reality.

And Slate: This Wasn’t a Debate. This Was a National Gaslighting.

And Business Insider: Mike Pence ‘won’ the debate by pretending Donald Trump doesn’t exist.

One way to understand Kaine’s approach was that it wasn’t geared toward winning Tuesday night’s debate, but setting up Hillary Clinton to win on Sunday night, the next presidential debate.

On that score, viewers gave Kaine high marks — 58% to 35% for Pence.

The larger point here is that this is a campaign for president, not a debating society. While Pence “won” by some metrics, Kaine was successful in setting a narrative that is most helpful to his running mate.

That might explain why Donald Trump is not happy.

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In other words, Kaine accomplished exactly what he set out to do.

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