The vice presidential debate was uniquely important because if Paul Ryan won it or did well, the Romney-Ryan ticket’s momentum would be continued or speed up. If he did not, that momentum would slow or stop. So the night carried implications.
The debate, obviously, was the Republican versus the Democrat, a particular kind of conservative versus a particular kind of liberal, one philosophical approach versus another. Beyond that there was some iconic weight to it. It was age versus youth; full, white-haired man versus lean, black-haired man. Youth is energy—new ideas and new ways. But age can stand for experience, wisdom. Youth can seem callow, confident only because it is uninformed. But age can seem reactionary, resistant to change in part because change carries a rebuke: You and your friends have been doing things wrong, we need a new approach.
Joe Biden had to do what the president failed to do—seem alive, bring it, show that he respects America so much he’d bother to fight for it. Mr. Biden is voluble, sentimental, scrappy. Could he focus his scrappiness enough to deliver targeted blows?
Mr. Ryan had to introduce himself to the American people in a new way—at length, in a contentious environment. He had to communicate: “I haven’t been a national figure long, but I know what I’m doing. I’m not radical or extreme and I’m not here to destabilize, I’m here to help make things safer by putting them on firmer ground.”
History is human; both men had things to prove. Mr. Biden had to show the White House, the Democratic base and himself that he still has it, that he’s not the doddering uncle in the attic. Whatever happens, at almost 70 this is his last grand political moment. Would his career end with a whiff or a hit? And the debate was his opportunity to save Barack Obama. Might that be personally satisfying? Obama staffers are often quietly condescending about Ol’ Joe. What sweet revenge to publicly save the leader of those who privately patronized you. If I read Mr. Biden correctly, this would have crossed his mind.
Mr. Ryan had to show the voters, the GOP and the political class that Mitt Romney did not make a mistake in choosing him. There were other candidates, some impressive. He had to demonstrate that Mr. Romney’s faith was well and shrewdly placed.
So: a pat on the back and a gold watch for the old man? Or a “Thanks for coming in, we’re going in another direction but let’s stay in touch” for the young one?
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So, to the debate:
There were fireworks all the way, and plenty of drama. Each candidate could claim a win in one area or another, but by the end it looked to me like this: For the second time in two weeks, the Democrat came out and defeated himself. In both cases the Republican was strong and the Democrat somewhat disturbing.
Another way to say it is the old man tried to patronize the kid and the kid stood his ground. The old man pushed, and the kid pushed back.
Last week Mr. Obama was weirdly passive. Last night Mr. Biden was weirdly aggressive, if that is the right word for someone who grimaces, laughs derisively, interrupts, hectors, rolls his eyes, browbeats and attempts to bully. He meant to dominate, to seem strong and no-nonsense. Sometimes he did—he had his moments. But he was also disrespectful and full of bluster. “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy!” he snapped at one point. It was an echo of Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, in 1988. But Mr. Quayle, who had compared himself to Kennedy, had invited the insult. Mr. Ryan had not. It came from nowhere. Did Mr. Biden look good? No, he looked mean and second-rate. He meant to undercut Mr. Ryan, but he undercut himself. His grimaces and laughter were reminiscent of Al Gore’s sighs in 2000—theatrical, off-putting and in the end self-indicting.
Mr. Ryan was generally earnest, fluid, somewhat wonky, confident. He occasionally teetered on the edge of glibness and sometimes fell off. If I understood him correctly during the exchange on Iran, he seemed to suggest to moderator Martha Raddatz that a nuclear war in the Mideast would be preferable to a nuclearized Iran. Really? That easy, is it? Mr. Biden had one of his first good moments when he said, essentially, “Whoa.” Actually he said war should always be a very last resort, which is always a good thing to say, and to mean.
Because the debate was so rich in charge and countercharge, and because it covered so much ground, both parties will be able to mine the videotape for their purposes. On the attack in Benghazi, the question that opened the debate, Mr. Biden was on the defensive and full of spin. He pivoted quickly to talking points, a move that was at once too smooth and too clumsy. He was weak on requests for added security before the consulate was overrun and the ambassador killed. “We will get to the bottom of this.” Oh. Good.
Mr. Ryan was strong on spending and taxes. On foreign affairs and defense spending, he was on weaker ground. Medicare and Social Security were probably a draw. Mr. Ryan coolly laid out the numbers and the need for change, but Mr. Biden emoted in a way that seemed sincere and was perhaps compelling. He scored when he knocked Mr. Romney for his 47% remarks, saying those who pay only payroll taxes pay a higher rate than many of the rich, including Mr. Romney. Mr. Ryan in turn scored on the unemployment rate in Scranton, Pa., Mr. Biden’s hometown. It is 10%. It was 8.5% when the recession began. “This is not what a real recovery looks like.” Mr. Ryan on abortion was personal and believable. Mr. Biden seemed to be going through the pro-choice motions.
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I have just realized the problem with the debate: it was the weird distance between style and content, and the degree to which Mr. Biden’s style poisoned his content.
In terms of content—the seriousness and strength of one’s positions and the ability to argue for them—the debate was probably a draw, with both candidates having strong moments. But in terms of style, Mr. Biden was so childishly manipulative that it will be surprising if independents and undecideds liked what they saw.
National Democrats keep confusing strength with aggression and command with sarcasm. Even the latter didn’t work for Mr. Biden. The things he said had the rhythm and smirk of sarcasm without the cutting substance.
And so the Romney-Ryan ticket emerged ahead. Its momentum was neither stopped nor slowed and likely was pushed forward.
Meaning that things will continue to get hotter. The campaign trail, commercials, all sorts of mischief—everything will get jacked up, cranked up. Meaning the next debate is even more important. Which means, since the next debate is a town hall and won’t be mano-a-mano at the podium, that the third debate, on foreign policy, will be the most important of all.
Ms. Raddatz acquitted herself admirably, keeping things moving, allowing the candidates to engage, probing. There was a real humanity to her presence. We just saw Jim Lehrer beat up for what was also good work. May her excellence go unpunished.