When they write the history books, this year’s Vice Presidential debate will probably be judged a draw. Joe Biden’s
supporters will say he won because he called “malarkey” on almost every
lie/misrepresentation/position-switch GOP nominee Paul Ryan repeated, which task consumed
the entire 90 minutes. And Ryan’s people will say he won because at no point in
the debate did he run out into the wings to cry, even though it looked
increasingly like that’s what he wanted to do.
The first consideration of these TV shows, which is what
they are, is style. Flash. The old jazz-hands zazz. And Biden outzazzed his
junior competition throughout. Ryan’s admirers will cite his gentle smile and
dead, twinkly, increasingly tired-looking eyes and tell themselves that mean
old Joe Biden had so much more debating experience that their guy walked away a
winner just for sticking out the whole 90 minutes.
For my part, I thought Ryan demonstrated a moment of
real class when the moderator pressed Biden for a definition of “stuff” that he
was clearly unprepared for, and Ryan handed him an out.
Good on you, Mr. Ryan. I hope someone points out to you that
your best debate moment came not just when you were helping someone in need,
but also the one time I remember specifically you telling the unvarnished
Biden is already drawing fire for his toothy grinning in the early
part of the night, but I think it was a calculated risk that paid off, in no
small part because he dialed it back as the evening went on. But the
split-screen allowed Biden to respond to Ryan’s stump distortions as they
tripped from the younger man’s lips, without all the bullying interrupting that
made the first presidential debate so exasperating.
Biden’s face was like a sign-language translation for people
who are being-lied-to-their-face challenged. He may have to have that grin
Biden also dominated the stage tonight the way Romney did
last week. Every time he spoke, he crushed it. He managed to spend the whole
night on defense without looking defensive, because Ryan’s words gave him so
many opportunities to orate. His command of the facts and his apparent comfort
with the format allowed him to deconstruct Ryan’s prevarications proactively,
rather than reactively. He looked in command and for the most part, Ryan looked
scripted and small.
So shit-eating-grin and all, I give Optics to Biden.
But it was on content where Biden really shone. He was
helped mightily by the fact that he was pitching a non-fiction storyline, but
then again, so was Obama last week and Romney made him his bitch anyhow.
So it extra rewarding to watch Biden call Ryan on every
mistruth and deliberate misinterpretation he presented.
Only when Ryan was talking about his religious upbringing
did he seem to stumble into the realm of that which was not wholly poppycock.
Speaking of which, it was good that domestic issues, like
where the campaigns stand on a woman’s right to choose, came up at last. The
moderator bore down enough that Ryan didn’t have the wiggle room to slip out
from under the party platform, his own record or Romney’s [most recent, always a necessary caveat when discussing Romney’s
deeply-held political convictions] rhetoric.
Any time women’s issues come up (in a non-campaign stop venue)
and can’t be deflected, Team Old Testament takes a solid kick in the
love-knuckles and Ryan knew it.
(Sidebar: Between wanting to seize legal control of womens’
use of their own genitals and an unwavering, laser-like obsession with men
who marry men, today’s GOP comes off a bit like the weird uncle at Thanksgiving whose
lap you’ve been warned not to sit in, no matter how much candy he offers you.
Let it go, guys. People are starting to talk…)
In the end, Biden won the night on both flash and
substance. I’m sure not having to remember which
position the head of his ticket articulated to television cameras, and which
was the clarification released immediately after, gave Biden an unfair
advantage over Ryan, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go into a debate
with the top of the ticket you have—not the top of the ticket you might want or
wish to have at a later time.
I think Ryan managed to pull off the neat trick of
publicly abandoning most of the core values and legislative accomplishments that
attract his followers without alienating said followers. This guy is going
places. I sure as hell hope it is never, ever the White House, but if you’re
this good while performing poorly, your prospects in politics are boundless.