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Thoughts on VP Debate (Observations from a Reluctant Pundit)
Biden seemed to dominate the debate, but being immersed in politics likely makes it impossible to know how voters will react
I contributed one item to the Guardian's live blog on tonight's vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, and although I do not typically do this type of punditry (and don't worry: that's unlikely to change), I'm re-printing it here, with a couple of additions, because the debate raises a couple of mildly interesting points:
This is one of those debates very difficult to judge if you are too immersed in politics. From both a substantive and stylistic perspective, Biden completely dominated the debate. He was far more passionate, authoritative, and aggressive than Ryan. It is a pure reversal of the first presidential debate but on steroids: Biden was actually more assertive and even more lively than Romney was, while Ryan was at times as listless and passive as Obama was.
The question is whether average, low-information viewers - also known as "undecideds" and "independents" - will find Biden's constant smirking, interrupting and obvious contempt for Ryan off-putting. That's possible - those types of viewers typically claim to dislike excess confrontation in politics, and what made Romney effective was that his aggression was restrained and respectful - but ultimately, Americans, their claims to the contrary notwithstanding, respond viscerally to alpha dominance in their political leaders.
Biden embodied that attribute, while Ryan often appeared sheepish, intimidated, and bullied. The feel of the debate was an elder, gruff, authoritative political leader running roughshod over a young, chastened, in-over-his-head neophyte. I have no idea how much any of this will matter, but the theatrics were overwhelmingly in Biden's favor, unless it's too confrontational for those watching.
Biden was even better on substance than on style. He was extremely effectively in highlighting both the extremism and incoherence of Ryan's ideology, and his forcing Ryan to admit that he sought stimulus money, after trashing the stimulus bill as corrupt, was lethal. Ryan did little to undermine the Obama-Biden platform, but that's because there is not much room to their right, and that's the only place Ryan feels comfortable fighting.
Four other points: (1) immediately following the debate, CNN's David Gergen said that Ryan won on style and it was a tie on substance; I really think political commentators in general (including me) have great difficulty knowing how the average viewer reacts to such things, and should acknowledge that;
(2) whether the polls show Biden winning or not, this is the type of performance that will please and embolden the Democratic base, probably make them giddy in fact, as it was contemptuous of the GOP and unrestrained in its mockery of their extremism and dishonesty; after Obama's sleepwalking in the last debate, that can be valuable to Democrats;
(3) Biden's strutting about how the Obama administration has destroyed Iran's economy with "crippling" sanctions turned my stomach, but Ryan's critique was that they had not gone far enough (without ever specifying what more should be done), so they were equally repellent on that; and,
(4) Biden continuously attacked Ryan and the GOP for "voting for two wars paid for with a credit card"; that's all true, except that Biden did exactly the same thing, and that little unmentioned fact, for me, summarizes most of these matters on the substance.
One commenter objects to my last point by noting that while Biden voted for both wars, he did not vote in favor of the Bush tax cuts. That's fine: but voting for two wars without proposing any way to pay for them (i.e., with a tax increase or spending cuts) is still "voting for two wars paid for with a credit card".
As for post-debate polls, Ryan apparently won the CNN poll while Biden won the CBS poll, for whatever that's worth and whatever it means.
To be perfectly honest, my favorite part of subjecting myself to this spectacle came when I unwittingly left C-SPAN on after the debate was over, and heard a C-SPAN viewer call in and say this. That made it all worthwhile.