Debate Round 2: As My Guitar Gently Veeps

The definition of a draw in a vice presidential debate has three elements: (1) each side can say with a reasonably straight face that its guy did well and prevailed; (2) each side can say with similar face that the other side’s guy was, well, faced; and (3) both sides can make these claims publicly without coming off as delusional or hallucinatory. All three conditions were met at Thursday’s debate, and a pair of instant polls right after piled on with a mixed verdict: a CBS survey of uncommitted voters gave Joe Biden the wind by 19 points (50-31), while a CNN survey had Paul Ryan up by 4 points (48-44). Taken as a whole it adds up to a night where everyone finds a reason to come away happy and nobody goes to bed grumpy, as huge swaths of blue America did last week.

There was good and bad in each candidate’s performance. Biden was frequently assertive and substantive — when he wasn’t being snide and dismissive. On the down side, he had trouble at times stopping himself from being overly snide and dismissive. Yes, several of Ryan’s vapid little prepared speechlet-answers invited dismissiveness in spades, but the act of being dismissive eats valuable time that could have been used to cry bullshit in a far more substantive ways.

Much will be said about Biden’s occasional high-amp grinning and eye-rolling while listening to Ryan speak. Ok, we get it, the debate coaches wanted upbeat and engaged, not dour like Obama last week, but this was overcompensating. It seriously overstates the case to call it, as Fox News’s Brit Hume did, “derisive sneering,” but it did grow off-putting. Fortunately, as the debate wore on Biden managed to dial back the split-screen mugging. Early on Biden seemed to have difficulty finding his way into the right give-and-take rhythm with opponent and moderator, but he found his footing in the second half, spending more time orchestrating the conversation rather than just reacting to it. He also knew how to look straight into the camera at times and address the folks at home directly — this worked well. It wasn’t clear that Ryan had any idea where the camera was.

Ryan did show himself to be the prepared and fluent policy guy one expects him to be, full of factoids, having memorized the names and dates and numbers he needed to memorize, as well as the phrases he needed to summon forth to tie his factoids together. He was simultaneously garrulous and glib, if such a thing is possible, spinning a multilayered web of articulate and at times quite persuasive prattle that succeeded in making it hard for Biden to know what to attack first. When this debating style worked, as it did during much of the first half of the encounter, an exasperated Biden would offer up some vague observation about how much of what the audience just heard is nonsense, and the making of that general assertion would crowd out any specific refutation. Point for Ryan. But in the second half Ryan was less effective as Biden seemed to figure out that you combat arguments with better arguments, not with chuckling assertions that the other guy’s arguments are lousy.

When it comes to the all important pivot maneuver — shifting on a dime from a question posed to an angle preferred —the candidates were both putting on a clinic. Biden did it right out of the gate in the first minute, turning a question about the Libyan embassy debacle into a broad-form treatise on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Osama. Ryan showed he’s got the moves when he turned a mini-lecture on the ticket’s economic plan into a sermon on Mitt Romney as the greatest most magnanimous human who ever walked the planet. Thank God (pun intended) they both turned the moderator’s inane late question about religion into an abortion policy question. My favorite pivot of all was about 56 minutes in when Biden pivoted from debating Ryan to debating the moderator Martha Raddatz. Raddatz was good but Biden won on points.

If Ryan’s objectives were to pass himself off as something other than a scary conservative extremist, and to present himself as someone ready to step into the top job should circumstances require, he’s batting .500. He came off as genial and thoughtful, without rancor, but also as scripted and out of his depth on international affairs. If Biden’s objectives were to reinvigorate a base that was starting to panic after last week, and to arrest the ascent of perceptions that Mitt Romney might be a reasonable, moderate guy after all, he’s one for two as well. Biden’s performance successfully cauterizes the bloodletting about Denver, and should help the already stalling Romney polling bounce to a soft landing. The race returns more or less to where it was a month ago.

When the debate ended, as commentators were busy forging the conventional wisdom — good night for Biden, good night for Ryan, mostly functional moderator, an engaging and substantive exchange — the question on everyone’s mind was “what about those independents?” At 9:30 pm CT were undecideds thinking “Biden sold me”? Were they thinking “that Ryan kid’s got moxie”? Either is possible, but I’m guessing most of them were thinking “holy shit, the Titans are beating the Steelers.”

On to Long Island…

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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