Oct 12 2012

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Biden vs Ryan

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Bloviating Isn't a Winning Political Strategy

Walking on stage for their first and only debate last night, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan came to the table with two very different benchmarks for victory.

For Biden, the overriding priority was to staunch the bleeding that began after President Obama’s disastrous debate performance on October 3rd. To that end, Biden needed to be energized where the President had been listless. The VP needed to strongly contest the Romney-Ryan agenda, where the President had been remarkably muted. And beyond facts, Biden needed to communicate a strong, coherent, thematic rationale in favor of continued Democratic governance.

By and large, Biden accomplished these goals.

Paul Ryan had a different set of objectives.

As a new-comer on the national stage, and a remarkably young one at that, Ryan had to prove that he would be a plausible vice president, knowledgeable on both domestic and foreign policy; implicitely confirming the wisdom of Mitt Romney in selecting him. Second, Ryan had to clearly identify the failures of the Obama administration, from ’08 promises to ’12 results. And finally, Ryan had to articulate and defend the Romney-Ryan agenda in the face of what was sure to be exponentially higher criticism from the Vice President. Ryan’s overriding goal was to perform in a manner that would not undercut the recent momentum created by the first presidential debate.

Ryan accomplished these goals.

On the issues, each candidate had strong points as well as weaker moments.

Biden was at his best with a strong emotive defense of Obama’s commitment to working class Americans and to preserve entitlements. The Vice President was robust in his use of hyperbole, which will land him in trouble with fact checkers, but it appeared genuine and convincing. However, Biden created more headaches for both the campaign and the Obama administration with his comments on the Benghazi terrorist attack, which were completely at odds with the official record.

 Ryan was strong on spending and taxes. He made a clear argument on entitlements and solid contrast on Obama-Biden broken promises. The Congressman also demonstrated the surprising depth of his foreign policy knowledge with a confident and highly detailed exposition on American policy in Afghanistan. But Ryan was somewhat weaker in the duel over Iran. In general, Ryan’s inner wonk steered him toward details instead of broader themes which, while factually important, carry less weight in the argumentation of a national debate where his opponent deployed rhetorical excess by the bucket. That placed Ryan in an overall disadvantage.

However, the distinguishing feature of the debate was style.

Ryan came to the table very much the same man that those who have followed his career have come to know: intelligent, informed, sober, serious, earnest and confident. Ryan, like Romney before him managed to be respectful of both the moderator and the Vice President, while also vigorously defending the Romney-Ryan agenda and challenge Biden’s arguments and assertions.

The Vice President’s style was an entirely different affair.

As Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Biden was “weirdly aggressive.”

Indeed, the Vice deployed an impressive range of disrespectful, even patronizing behavior. Through inappropriate smiles, smirks, grimaces, eye-rolling, hectoring and derisive laughter, Biden set a new low for basic civility in presidential debates. If you don’t believe it, simply look at the Cheney-Lieberman debate from ’00 for context.

In just 90 minutes, Biden managed to interrupt Ryan 82 times. This wasn’t the collegial, well-liked Joe Biden from his years in the Senate, or the much more restrained Joe Biden who debated Sarah Palin four years ago. In reviewing his performance in total, it would seem that the Vice President had taken his debate prep pointers from public union militants in Wisconsin. It was sadly unbecoming to Biden the man, Biden the politician and to the Office of the Vice President.

To his credit, Ryan did not rise to the bait or get rattled by Biden’s antics. The constant interruptions did seem to test Ryan’s patience, but in a clear sense of who the actual adult was at the table, you wondered whether Ryan was going to put Biden in a “time out.”

So, what is the take-away?

Biden’s condescending behavior overwhelmed any merit his arguments may have held. While the liberal base has to be thrilled with all the red meat Biden was throwing around – he managed to mention the “47%” and Romney’s taxes in one answer – it’s hard to see how this performance would have any positive impact on independents or undecideds. That is in stark contrast to Ryan’s restraint and humility.

And for all the focus on either making up political ground or holding it, only one candidate asked for your vote last night. The other just assumed it.

That was telling.

And finally, it is important to note that VP debates don’t decide elections. But they are a valuable part of the debate narrative continuum. Last night, each side got what it said it wanted. Now we’ll see which strategy was more effective in the coming days.

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