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.
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.