During tonight’s vice presidential debate, Vice President Biden repeatedly laughed at inappropriate moments. He continually interrupted both his opponent and the moderator. He looked a little too angry for his own good at certain moments. His tone vacillated wildly.
And he won the debate.
If Mr. Biden’s job in this debate was to staunch the bleeding caused by President Obama’s phoned-in performance at last week’s presidential debate, he succeeded. In contrast, Congressman Ryan—who was more consistent in tone throughout the debate—too often appeared rehearsed, flat, and junior.
I suspect many readers will disagree with my conclusion. And they have some reasonable ammunition with which to disagree.
Dissenting readers will likely point to Mr. Biden’s demeanor. And they’d be right that four different Bidens showed up for the debate. First, the Biden who smiled and laughed at forced and inopportune moments; second, the Biden who repeatedly interrupted; third, the Biden who became heated and angry; and fourth, the Biden who was quiet and reflective.
Watching Biden’s performance was a bit like watching Showtime’s “United States of Tara.”
Despite all of that, Mr. Biden was simply more effective at controlling the debate, challenging his opponent’s premises, and delivering memorable messages. Unlike the president he serves, Mr. Biden confronted Ryan directly throughout the debate, memorably saying, “Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy.”
Even more importantly, Biden forged a warmer and more emotional personal connection with viewers, particularly when addressing seniors regarding Medicare by looking directly into the camera.
If Mr. Biden’s job tonight was to change the media narrative, Mr. Ryan’s was to prove that he’s ready for the vice presidency while holding the ground Republicans have gained over the past week. He met that challenge tonight, but didn’t exceed it. My guess is that his performance will be almost completely forgotten by next week.
Watching these debates is a bit of a Rorschach test, in which viewers see what they’re conditioned to see. What I saw in Mr. Ryan was a serious student who had studied his materials well but who had tried a bit too hard to memorize his lines—and who lost some of his authenticity as a result. With the exception of a couple of well-delivered anecdotes (particularly on his 2002 trip to Afghanistan), he came across as rather academic.
And Ryan came dangerously close to Dan Quayle territory when he referenced John F. Kennedy. “Now you’re Jack Kennedy?” an incredulous Joe Biden asked.
Still, Mr. Ryan had several good moments. He delivered a strong closing statement about the national debt, and did a credible job of discussing Afghanistan later in the debate. One highlight came when Ryan turned to Biden and said: “With respect to that quote [Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comment], I think the Vice President knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth in the right way.” Unfortunately for Mr. Ryan, Biden had the perfect retort: “But I always say what I mean, and so does Romney.”
There were two other moments worth noting. First, Mr. Ryan took a deep breath in before answering a question about the availability of abortion in America under a Romney-Ryan administration. That may hurt with pro-choice voters who occasionally swing right. Second, Joe Biden chose to label Paul Ryan “my friend” 13 times during the debate, which became an insincere distraction.
Overall, Joe Biden displayed all of the passion for his job that Democrats wish President Obama had last week. And Paul Ryan held his own, even if his performance is likely to disappear into the political ether within days.
Grades: Joe Biden: B+ Paul Ryan: B-
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.