WASHINGTON, October 11, 2012 — Vice President Joe Biden and GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan met tonight in a debate that may have stanched the bleeding caused to the Obama campaign by last week’s fiasco in Denver.
The debate was really two very different debates, depending on whether you watched it or listened to it. On the radio, Biden was much more assertive than President Obama was last week, seeming to have taken a page from Mitt Romney’s book. He was at all times on the offensive, never letting a point get past unchallenged, and occasionally trying to keep the point from getting past at all. He sounded confident and in command, if not always entirely grounded in facts and logic, while Ryan sounded more deferential.
On TV the story changed. Biden maintained a feral grin throughout, often laughing and smirking when Ryan spoke. His intent may have been to intimidate Ryan or to make him look like a mere boy, but his demeanor was more Joker than vice-presidential. He went back and forth between contemptuous and deranged in a performance that, combined with his frequent interruptions of Ryan (over 80 according to one TV pundit), was both fascinating and slightly disturbing.
Biden displayed a certain command of the issues, but he laced his arguments with red herrings. His performance carried more than a whiff of the “Chewbacca Defense”: “Look at me. I’m the vice president defending a failed administration, and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you’re in that voting booth deliberatin’ and conjugatin’ the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must reelect Barack Obama! Thank you.”
The debate ranged over foreign and domestic policy, everything from Libya to Afghanistan to Medicare to taxes. Not deigning to refute carefully Ryan’s numbers and assertions, Biden more often contemptuously dismissed them as “malarkey.” He apparently modified at least one Obama position, raising from $250,000 to $1 million the threshold for raising tax rates on high-income earners.
One of the more interesting questions of the night came when moderator Martha Raddatz asked the candidates to deliver personal statements of their Catholic faith and how it relates to their views on abortion. Ryan expressed his opposition to abortion except in cases of incest, rape and danger to the mother’s life and pointed out that that is the joint stance of the GOP candidates. Biden indicated that he would not himself have an abortion but would decline to impose his preferences on anyone else.
In the course of the debate Biden managed to make reference to the “47 percent” a couple of times, most passionately when he spoke of his parents. He also managed to invoke Sarah Palin.
While liberals were united in their outrage at the way Jim Lehrer moderated the first debate, conservatives will probably be united in their contempt for Raddatz. She seemed more inclined to interrupt Ryan and change the question before he could respond to Biden. Ryan might have begun to feel tag-teamed by the two of them.
Unlike the first debate, beliefs about the victor of this one will almost certainly divide along party lines. Biden was either confident or colossally rude, Ryan either polite and collected or outgunned depending on who you prefer. An initial poll from CNN showed the debate to be a statistical dead heat (48 percent Ryan, 44 percent Biden), while a CBS poll made Biden the clear winner among uncommitted voters, 50 to 39 percent.
Fifty-six percent of those polled by CBS said that they thought Biden would be an effective president; 49 percent said the same of Ryan. A large majority found both Biden and Ryan knowledgeable on the issues (85 and 75 percent respectively), and both improved perceptions of whether they are “relatable.”
Because opinions of this debate will be more evenly and ideologically split, it will probably have less impact on poll numbers than the first debate. It should give Obama breathing room to prepare for his next debate with Romney, probably halting further movement toward Romney until voters can reassess the two candidates at the top of the tickets. With two more debates to come, it wasn’t the knockout punch that either campaign would have liked, but it was what the Obama campaign needed.
The next presidential debate will be held on Tuesday, October 16. Expect a reinvigorated Obama, a determined Romney, and a campaign that remains in a statistical dead heat until election day.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He enjoyed the Dark Knight, but never imagined Joe Biden in the role of the Joker until the debate. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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