Desperate to atone for Obama’s debate disaster, Vice President Joe Biden sacrificed his one enduring attribute on the altar of the 2012 campaign – his likeability. During his face-off against GOP contender Paul Ryan, Biden alternately bullied and blustered, chortled and chuckled – making a mockery of Ryan, the debate and the American people. All but the most partisan admirers of the Veep were appalled by his bizarre behavior.
How did it work out? Polling done right after the event showed that Ryan had won; CNN gave it to the GOP contender 48-44, and said viewers judged Ryan the more likeable candidate 53-43. CNBC put Ryan as the winner 56-36. Only CBS, with a poll heavily skewed towards independents and Democrats, gave Biden the win. (Only 17 percent of those surveyed identify themselves as Republicans. The media has naturally jumped on that one reading as the most relevant so eager are they for an Obama comeback.)
More important perhaps is whether the candidates did what they had to do in last night’s confrontation. I wrote earlier this week that Paul Ryan’s challenge in the VP debate was to convince voters that he is not a loon. For sure, he succeeded. Ryan was calm, thoughtful, and deliberate in his answers. He argued his points forcefully and took issue with Biden respectfully. He offered up enough data points to prove his competence but did not get tangled in the weeds.
I also wrote that Joe Biden needed to show that he was a “responsible manager of our country’s affairs.” In the end, that proved too high a hurdle for the Vice President.
Biden was apparently convinced he had to single-handedly compensate for President Obama’s dreadful performance in last week’s one-to-one with Mitt Romney. Obama was non confrontational, so Biden was overly aggressive, interrupting Paul Ryan 82 times. The president was dour, so the vice president looked like he had inhaled nitrous oxide on his way into the studio. The saddest part of this showdown was that in his lucid moments, Biden scored some hits and gave voters food for thought. As he reviews the tapes today he must wonder why he didn’t put more energy into debate and less into buffoonery.
Biden laughed almost every time Ryan opened his mouth. He chuckled over Iran’s steady progress towards acquiring a nuclear weapon, over his administration’s failure to lower the jobless rate, over proposed tax hikes and the scandal in Libya. He laughed when Ryan pointed out that the Democrats had controlled both houses of Congress for two years, about our borrowings from China, about the failed promises of Obamacare, about the threats to Medicare and Social Security, about raising taxes on small businesses and about trying to garner bipartisan agreement. He thought cuts to our defense budget hilarious, and our failure to intercede in Syria just plain silly. The man acted like he was off his meds.
It was unfortunate, because Biden was clearly well briefed, and delivered some solid talking points. He was convincing on abortion, which is not easy for a practicing Catholic. He presented himself as aligned with his church in opposing abortion, but resolutely against imposing his views on others. He pushed Ryan on Afghanistan, forcing the GOP candidate to admit that there was little difference between his ticket’s approach to withdrawing our troops and that taken by the Obama team. He managed to repeat Romney’s unfortunate “47%” quote. He also dodged some especially difficult questions – such as how the administration came to mislead Americans about the Libyan attacks. When not laughing like a hyena, Mr. Biden held his own.
Ryan, for his part, argued the case for entitlements reform and successfully rebutted Biden’s attempts to scare voters. He spoke up for the proposals Mitt Romney has put on the table, and repudiated the caricature that Democrats have drawn of the former Massachusetts governor – a job well underway after last week’s debate. Obama’s absurd debasement of a hugely successful and decent American should be recognized by clear-thinking voters for what it is – a necessary distraction from his own short-comings. Ryan said it well: “If you don't have a record to run on then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.”