Election 2012

Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan watches as Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky on Thursday. (David Goldman/AP)

Vice President Joe Biden was on the verge of appearing like a bully during segments of his debate against Paul Ryan Thursday night. Let’s hope his performance doesn’t set a new baseline for incivility in future debates.

It was clear from pre-debate chatter that Biden’s strategy was to come out swinging. Ryan himself even predicted that Biden would come at him “like a cannonball.” Biden, though, took the plan too far at times. His behavior was unprecedented — it was in a different league from Al Gore rolling his eyes or George H.W. Bush checking his watch.

For virtually the entire evening, until his blood sugar level must have sunk towards the end of the debate, Biden grinned with contempt at Ryan, grunted, and interrupted his opponent. He was unable — or unwilling — to control his emotions. At one point, Biden under his breath even mockingly referenced his 2008 debate with Sarah Palin.

It may have crossed the viewer’s mind during the debate that Biden is a mere heartbeat away from the presidency, and his temperament under stress might make that prospect troubling.

Ironically, if Biden had pared back his behavior he would have achieved more of the effect his political strategists sought. Biden’s performance will rally some in the Democratic base who were looking for their candidate to lift their collective spirit in the wake of President Obama’s uninspired performance last week. It will give labor union leaders something to rally around during their get-out-the-vote speeches over the next three weeks. Biden’s debate behavior won’t, however, win independents and undecideds over to the Obama ticket. In fact, it may turn off many of them.

Ryan did the campaign, and his own reputation, a favor by not taking Biden’s bait — he studiously avoided being drawn into the emotions of the moment.

Also, the Obama campaign would be the first to tell you off the record that Biden’s behavior shouldn’t be the narrative coming out of this debate. They were aiming for a contrast of issues — which Biden pushed forcefully at times, but eventually the Joe Show overshadowed the substance.

Ryan, for his part, remained calm and controlled throughout, intentionally trying to draw a distinction between his leadership style and Biden’s. Though about 30 years Biden’s junior, he appeared more mature than the vice-president. Importantly for the Romney ticket, Ryan — despite his inexperience in this format — avoided major gaffes.

Ryan did the campaign, and his own reputation, a favor by not taking Biden’s bait — he studiously avoided being drawn into the emotions of the moment. His job was to show the electorate that Romney had selected a competent and focused running mate.

Biden nonetheless had his openings. Overall, Ryan didn’t come across as particularly warm and likeable, even when juxtaposed with Biden’s bluster. He appeared rehearsed and cautious — the handful of anecdotes he used to try to connect with viewers at a personal level largely fell flat.

Ryan was uneven on substance as well. He held his own in his weakest area — foreign policy — but did not meet expectations when explaining his ticket’s economic programs and its overarching philosophy of economic freedom and growth. His arguments lacked passion and, oddly enough for a “wonk,” specifics. He failed to call out Biden on many of his distortions of Romney’s positions — something Romney himself was able to do quite effectively against Obama last week.

Biden was really just working off the bullet points he’s been using on the stump since Labor Day. There were no surprises or depth to his arguments, just a high decibel level. The huffing and puffing may have thrown Ryan off his game or, perhaps, Ryan had overcompensated for his wonkish reputation by watering down his points too much.

It was also stunning that the topic of abortion received more air time than the massive federal debt. Ryan should not have allowed that to happen.

The moderator, Martha Raddatz, had her hands full. Part of this was expected, as she had to tread carefully to manage her appearance of a conflict of interest stemming from her well-known wedding guest. Biden’s unruliness, though, was unexpected. Raddatz never did get control over the process. She also seemed oddly passive-aggressive at times, failing to cut off Biden to control the flow of the debate process, but bearing down on Ryan and pressing him on follow-up questions that were absent in her lines of inquiry for Biden.

Biden’s job last night was to stop the bleeding and retake the initiative for his team. Though forceful and aggressive, as his playbook called for, it’s unclear whether he accomplished the mission. It will be interesting to see how his unique performance polls among undecideds in the coming week.

Ryan essentially fulfilled his role in unspectacular fashion. Though his performance will likely disappoint some of those true Ryan-believers among the GOP’s ranks, he did a yeoman’s job of projecting competence and stability.

The debate was not a good harbinger for those who yearn to raise the level of political discourse in our nation. Perhaps the next debate between Obama and Romney will restore some of the respect for the American electorate that was lost in Danville last night.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Joe

    What was this writer’s reaction to Mitt’s act last week? I know as a conservative you have to support your guy, but really! Pot calling the kettle black!

  • Nadine

    It is interesting to me that Romney’s behavior, though not as theatrical as Biden’s, was not critiqued for the # of times he interrupted Obama. At least I found Biden to be able to refute and present against the attacks and untruths Romney left on the table.

  • Matt K

    Very thoughtful piece. Will Biden try out for the role of the Joker in the next Batman movie? Very striking resemblance.

  • Sinclair2

    It’s not about how Joe Biden presented himself, it’s about what he said. Some people think that remaining stoic and sitting still while appearing neat and tidy is an important style. Depends if you’re a W.A.S.P., emotional Mediteranean type or a demonstrative Irish American and how one perceives style. Style only goes so far and becomes worn out and eventually superfical.
    Joe Biden was well prepared and justifiably took off with a fast start to strongly address the questions President Obama politely answered.

  • katy

    I’m a woman and was an undecided voter before last night….I HATE BULLIES!

    • ANNA

      Then no doubt you will be supporting the Obama/Biden ticket as Romney is the classic bully. Stay tuned for round 2 and you’ll see him once again in action.

  • Guest

    didn’t like my comment saying Biden is a bully….so much for free speech

  • MrLongleg

    I really liked Joe yesterday. he once said “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on”, therefore he was right to interrupt when Ryan came out with already discredited lies again and again. He did what Romney did last week, but in contrast to Romney he had the facts on his side. Facts matter, he said that a couple of times and at the end Ryan rightfully looked like a school boy.

    Isn’t it funny, that almost nobody criticized Romney for applying the same tactic in the last debate.

    I believe Joe did a great job yesterday and I would have no problem with him being our president. The school boy Ryan as president – now that would be a nightmarish scenario,

  • superfinehelios

    No. Joe’s actions did not overshadow the substance of what he said. It was the perfect reaction to the absurd strategy of the Repub party. At least there IS substance in the Dem’s plans. Best stay out of the way of a man that has facts and passion—of course Ryan did not take the bait.

  • adsin15

    I was more concerned with substance and not smiles and gawwuffs. I think the author of this aticle should try re-watching the debate but this time….turn the sound on.

  • adsin15

    hey my name is sinclair as well! Great post by the way.

  • ladyReb

    He was obnoxious and a big bully! My vote is for Romney/Ryan. Obama/Biden are jokes.

  • joealbiani

    While I thought Joe was a little over the top it was most refreshing to see him jump on Ryan’s lies as opposed to Obama letting Romney lie over and over without any rebuttal. When Ryan talked of his “bipartisan bill with one Democratic senator Joe immediately pointed out that the senator withdrew his support when he saw the final bill and there was no Democrat support at all. Ryan nevertheless kept talking as if there was. The numbers didn’t add up on the GOP vague promise of fixing the tax code and when pressed Ryan had no specifics as usual. This was much more of a debate than we usually see and it was refreshing to see Ryan called on his lies immediately. Then Ryan attacking the stimulus plan when he had written 2 letters asking for money from stimulus saying in the letter that it would create jobs!
    Ryan just sat there unable to respond to his hypocracy. Ryan and Romney are a perfect pair of liars.For the first time they got called right after they came out with a lie and it showed them to be just politicians saying whatever they thought would be popular.

  • dutchgirl255

    It’s like we watched this debate from different planets…I completely disagree with your assessment and your conservative bias shows through- I had expected more balanced coverage from WBUR here! Joe Biden did what Joe Biden does best, cut through the c…p and factless bluster and rhetoric that Ryan spews out. He did not ‘bully’ as you mentioned, and if he rolled his eyes a few times, well, Ryan deserved it. Perhaps go to and see why…..If anybody does their math they can work it out. As for the comment by a previous contributor who says she hates bullies- what- it’s ok for a party to decide what YOU can do with your body? That is not bullying? And as for the VP’s job- I look at Ryan and to think he could be running the country it makes me want to weep. Give me Joe Biden any day.You may not like his policies, but at least there is honesty and experience there, something badly lacking in the Republican camp. Until this election I actually did not mind Romney and thought he was a moderate. This election campaign shows him for what he is- a flip flop and a liar. And why Ryan kept mentioning that Romney has ‘business experience’ is beyond me. I am a small business owner and Romneys so called ‘business’ experience seems to add up to stripping companies for profit and shipping jobs overseas. The man would not know how to create jobs and sell something if it hit him in the face. By the way I thought the moderator did a fabulous job to keep things on track.

  • J__o__h__n

    Pointing out lies isn’t rude. Biden was great.
    The moderator didn’t lose control.

  • Steve

    I tend to agree that Joe would have been much more effective, had he focused on exuding confidence and composure as opposed to theater and drama. Having watched the presidential debate, President Obama looked woefully under prepared, as if he might have underestimated his opponent. Joe was clearly much better prepared, but there is a line between confidence and aggression. Disappointingly, I believe that Joe crossed that line. I hope for his sake, that it doesn’t cost him the election. I know a few independent voters, like myself, who are struggling to relate with his approach.

  • Tom Deschene

    The picture for this article is misleading all by itself! His hands are up because that is where the sky is.
    Biden is saying “They talk about this great recession as if it fell from the sky like ‘Oh my goodness! Where did it come from?'” with his voice never raising above a conversational tone.

    Yes, Biden chuckled more than a few times, but as someone who sometimes needs help knowing fact from fiction when a canidate is talking, it helps being able to see what Biden finds innaccurate, which he indicates with a silent chuckle.

    Honestly, show me a frame where Biden is chuckling, and I’ll show you a statement worth chuckling at. It’s as simple as that.