Vice Presidential debates have a history of being sideshows that don’t impact the core narrative of an election. Arguably the most famous smackdown in debate history – “Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy” – occurred in a VP debate, yet Dan Quayle’s ticket won the election handily. To be clear: a bad VP candidate can damage a ticket (you can see one from
), but a bad debate performance? It would take a shocking debate gaffe to sway the election balance, and we have simply never seen one that bad. Alaska
Yet with all that being said, the stakes going into last night were unusually high.
Among the worrisome implications of Barack Obama’s recent narcolepsy was the realization that the Maginot line to halt the stampede of swing state undecided voters to Romney would be the administration’s gaffer-in-chief, Vice President Joseph Biden.
Yep, the guy who famously called his current boss, uh, “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” effectively ending Biden’s own presidential bid a mere hours after he announced his candidacy. If you google gaffe, you get Biden.
So part of the drama last night was that the guy who had to stop the bleeding was the guy who has demonstrated a willingness to go for the jugular. Unfortunately, it is usually his own.
Biden’s opponent, Paul Ryan, had a different objective last night. Boyish in appearance, and champion of legislation that takes a scalpel to social safety net programs, he needed to clear the “one heartbeat away” gravitas meter, and simultaneously convey that he is not simply a bloodless spreadsheet with abs, but rather, a man fully capable of empathy who truly understands the human implications of his policy wonk theory.
However, with all the momentum flowing Romney’s way, it would have taken unforced errors that measured “Gerald Ford” on the Richter scale for Ryan to violate the VP debate Hippocratic oath of “do no harm to the top of the ticket.”
So the night would be all about momentum: could Biden stop the bleeding? Could Ryan intensify the Romney mojo by exceeding relatively modest expectations?
Well, neither guy won, but both achieved their objectives.
First, that great Biden gaffe machine was nowhere to be seen last night.
Strong, aggressive, challenging and in command of detail, Biden took a combative tone from the get-go, and he never let up. For better and indeed for worse, Biden consumed more of the oxygen in the room. Criticize him for the head shaking, eye-rolling, goofy-grinned, side-long glances at Ryan accompanied with the “can you believe his b.s?” guffaws and pained looks of sanctimonious indignation. But after President Ambien, you can understand a guy determined to err on the side of appearing to relish the fight.
He won the opening round “soundbyte” by cleverly employing the word “malarkey,” perhaps sensing that calling Ryan a liar to his face would offend the sensibilities of a populace growing weary of the scorched earth vitriol that now passes for political discourse.
But Biden refused to let misrepresentations stand, and was perfectly willing to interrupt – repeatedly – to challenge Ryan on the facts. Biden even went up the nostrils of the moderator, for heaven’s sake, slamming ABC’s tough-as-nails Martha Raddatz when he thought she was wrong on facts. And this happened well into a debate where Raddatz had already made Jim Lehrer look like Big Bird; frankly, I toyed with declaring her the debate winner.
Biden hammered three clear, simple themes: (1) facts matter, (2) democrats are champions of the middle class, and (3) for all of Romney’s blustering, he has offered nothing of substance that he would or could do differently in middle-east foreign policy. Note to POTUS’s hopefully entirely new debate prep team: feel free to cut and paste this paragraph.
Paul Ryan, however, came to play ball. He did not get rattled; he had his talking points at the ready. There were moments when Ryan seemed uncomfortably shackled by the Romney playbook. You get the feeling that this guy is just dying to tick down the list of loopholes and entitlements he would go after to explain how his budget math works, and yet in his role as second string qb, he had to dutifully chant Romney-speak about working through the details later in “bipartisan dialog.” Paul Ryan saying he doesn’t want to talk about budget details is about as sincere as Chris Christie dissing French fries.
Ryan did spend a surprising amount of time on the defensive, if only because Biden was so brazenly challenging his factual accuracy. But in those exchanges, Ryan held his own, maintained his composure, and came off as a person of substance and stature. There were moments in which he appeared to put the wrong debate prep canned answer into the cassette machine: Responding to Biden’s incoming about the Detroit bailout, he told a strange story about Mitt Romney helping a family after a horrible car accident; touching I suppose, but utterly puzzling in this context... made downright weird because of Biden’s own horrific family tragedy in a car crash. What was Ryan thinking?
As the debate veered increasingly to mid-east policy – not his wheelhouse – Ryan gamely went toe-to-toe with Biden on Afghan seasonal military tactics. (AlthoughI admit that is when I checked the Yankees-Orioles score).
I commented after the first debate that the mental processes of mainstream America react first and foremost to visual cues; that, indeed, you learn the most about who did well if you actually watch the debate with the sound turned off. On this measure, Paul Ryan did very well indeed. He was calm, measured, focused, and relaxed throughout. Joe Biden’s one thematic error for the evening was to overplay his on camera reactions to Ryan’s commentary. In the silent movie, Biden was a giant ham. It should not be a surprise that the CNN polls gave Ryan a slight overall edge.
But last night Biden did the thing that the dems were aching for someone to do: call the repubs on their most egregious stances. He pointed out that the recent recession was triggered on a republican watch. He fought tooth and nail to expose the candy-coated math that allows Romney to promise everything and sacrifice nothing. And he was unflinching in championing the administration’s nuanced and realistic approach to the middle east, effectively baiting Ryan to acknowledge that the only substantive differences between the candidates were Romney’s apparent casual willingness to put boots on the ground in Iran and Syria, and willingness to re-enact W’s “we don’t need no stinkin’ allies or no U.N. endorsement to send in the shock and awe.”
In the end, these two spirited combatants may not have changed anyone’s mind last night, but never underestimate the importance of energizing your own supporters. Yes, like you know who did.
And that is the final huge implication of this debate: The most important thing Joe Biden did last night raised the bar of expectation for his own boss. You could practically hear him.
“Hey, Barack… I know you don’t like getting down here where the dirt flies and the people who play nice get kicked in the teeth. I know you wish that the world liked cerebral guys who speak in measured tones and fully formed paragraphs. I know you wish you didn’t have to do this. But what I just did is what you have to go do. Now go kick some Romney ass.”
The next debate is going to be fascinating. Coming out of last night, the VP gave the democrats some of their ‘tude back, got them energized for game day, and now they are just Biden their time until Tuesday.
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