9:32 am Oct. 12, 2012
Joe Biden’s debate performance in Danville may not have been perfect—his repeated interruptions and mocking laughter may have turned off some viewers disinclined to like him anyway.
But Biden did what his party most needed him to do, putting on a display designed to give supporters of a campaign once founded on hope and audacity a little of both.
The vice president entered the floor like a doggie being let out of the kennel, hitting every point Democrats wanted to see, exhibiting the passion of a gladiator, and generally dominating the proceedings.
He saddled Paul Ryan with Mitt Romney’s "47 percent" comments and a tax cut plan that eliminates deductions for the middle class, as well as Ryan’s plan to curtail Medicare and Social Security and his effort to win stimulus money from the very program he now derides. He made Ryan uncomfortable, and when the congressman didn't answer the moderator's questions, Biden made sure everyone knew it.
Basically, Biden was everything at his debate that Barack Obama hadn't been at the first presidential debate; it's as if he prepped primarily by watching Obama’s performance and then resolving to do the opposite. This time around, it was the Republican, Ryan, who was passively playing defense while his opponent single-mindedly rattled off one argument after another. This time it was the Democrat controlling the pace and tone of the discussion, interrupting when he felt like, and viewing the moderator’s instructions, for the most part, as suggestions.
Entering a debate, a candidate’s team will often agree on a tactical approach, in addition to points they want to hit. Biden's goal was clearly to expose a wide stature gap by dominating the floor, correcting his young opponent (he used the word “malarkey” three times), interrupting him when needed (“It’s incredible!”; “That’s a bunch of stuff”), and generally making him look small (“my friend, the Congressman”).
On foreign policy, a subject Biden has worked on for nearly four decades, the difference was particularly stark. While Ryan generally managed to utter, without incident, the words his advisers had planned for him on the topic, he clearly lacked a fluency with the subject matter. At one point toward the end of the night, Biden looked like an old professor impatiently teaching a confused student about Afghanistan (“We want to send Afghans to do the job, not Americans,” he repeated extra-slow, to ensure comprehension).
Biden was OK with the idea of coming off as obnoxious in exchange for demonstrating how much his opponent still had to learn before he could be considered commander in chief material.
The reality is that vice presidential debates don't usually do much, in terms of convincing significant numbers of undecided voters to support a ticket. But after Denver, Republicans had a very real edge in enthusiasm, and their uncommitted voters, or “leaners,” were firming up. Fewer voters had been identifying as Democrats, reflecting a decrease in enthusiasm among Obama’s leaners.
Perhaps Republican voters were not persuaded by Scranton Joe, who more likely reaffirmed their inclination to see him as a blowhard. And perhaps not every independent voter was moved to the Democrats’ side. Perhaps Republicans even have reason to feel good about Ryan’s mostly error-free performance (though their complaints about the moderator and emphasis on Biden’s body language suggest otherwise).
With Obama's lead having shrunk in the polls after Denver, the vice president gave his team reason for confidence, and there is intrinsic value to that alone. Donors will give more, and raise more. Canvassers will approach their job with more enthusiasm. And those mercurial “leaners,” who were with Obama after the convention but more wobbly after his debate, might just return, particularly if the president can follow Biden's lead by asserting himself at the next debate at Hofstra.