So this is what it looks like when a debate has two sides.
I have to admit that a lot of us underestimated Joe Biden. It's not just that he avoided a major gaffe in tonight's vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan. He made more than a few highly dubious statements, including an absolute howler about how we won the counter-insurgency war in Iraq by having a firm withdrawal deadline (which is precisely what President Bush refused to do). But the vice-president didn't offer the kind of classic Bidenism the Romney campaign was hoping for. More than that, he was sharp, combative, and strident.
Perhaps a little too combative. From the very beginning, he was constantly interrupting Ryan, always trying to squeeze in the last word in any exchange, accusing Ryan of lying, impatiently shaking his head, and most of all, cracking his trademark grin in an exaggerated expression of exasperation.
For the last eight days, the theme of the left's response to the first presidential debate is that Barack Obama should have been more combative, he should have attacked more, he should have "called out" Mitt Romney on his "lies." With Biden, they got their wish.
But they should be careful what they wish for, because my impression is that Biden came off as a jerk. It was like Al Gore's infamous sighs and eye-rolling from the first presidential debate in 2000, only less pompous and more mean-spirited. For years, when I wanted to poke fun of politicians, I would refer to Senator Blowhard, a generic representative of the kind of congressman who tries to inflate himself into a great man by giving self-important speeches during congressional hearings. But the caricature wasn't entirely generic. The model was Joe Biden, and that was who we saw tonight: Vice-President Blowhard.
That's not just my impression. Brit Hume thought Biden was rude, and that's not just the consensus at Fox News Channel. NBC's David Gregory described him as "condescending," as did CNN's Gloria Borger. And a lot of the folks in Frank Luntz's focus group found Biden "disrespectful" and "arrogant."
For crying out loud, Biden even picked a few fights with the moderator, Martha Raddatz, despite the fact that she was somewhat friendlier to him than to Ryan. She tended to let Biden go off on rants and then call an end to the exchange while Biden was still swinging away, without giving Ryan a chance to respond. Moreover, I got the distinct impression that she asked more tough, skeptical follow-up questions to Ryan than to Biden. Yet Biden still complained about not being allowed to interrupt even more or not getting enough time to speak.
The Republican National Committee is already out with a good web ad highlighting the vice-president's inappropriate smirks. I like how it ends with Ryan ticking off the awful performance of the economy as Biden is laughing and smiling, and then Biden's smile slowly fades as his bluster wears off.
As for Ryan, I thought he dealt with the onslaught fairly well. He was serious, engaging, and had a command of the facts. One of Biden's techniques was to throw out so many claims and accusations that no one could respond to them all, and Ryan was very disciplined in choosing the main point he wanted to make and not getting distracted by trying to answer everything.
At one point, when Biden was interrupting him yet again, Ryan got in a good zinger, telling Biden, "I know you're under duress" to turn in a strong performance after last week, "but it will be better if we stop interrupting each other." And toward the end, Ryan did something smart. When Biden would launch into an outraged rant, Ryan would let him rage himself out and then leave just a little bit of silence before he calmly responded. I particularly liked how Ryan closed the debate with a very serious warning about the looming debt crisis, then contrasted it to Obama's response, which is to offer more speeches. It underscored my main reason for wanting to vote for him.
My overall impression is that this debate was a contrast of combative bluster versus calm substance.
The big question is whether tonight helped change the course of the race. My view going in was that it would only have an impact if it was a blowout in one direction or another. If Biden came across as a buffoon, which was a real possibility, or if Ryan was unprepared or cracked under the pressure of relentless attack, then it might affect the race. As it is, I don't think it will be a big advantage for either side.
More important, this was a test to see which arguments hit home and might be effective in the next president debate. Biden was clearly trying out lines of attack. That will be very well received at MSNBC, and since this administration lives in the mainstream media bubble, this will probably encourage Obama to attack more and be more combative next week. But he won't be as good at it, and it will be even less becoming to his position and office, so that would be a mistake in terms of style.
In terms of substance, I don't think there was any big vulnerability that opened up on either side. For example, Biden brought up Mitt Romney's ill-advised comments on "the 47%" who pay no taxes. But Ryan immediate parried it by making an effective joke about Biden's own tendency to commit gaffes, and by pivoting to personal stories about Mitt Romney's compassion and generosity, which counteracted the snobbish Thurston Howell image Biden was trying to paint.
I mostly agree with Charles Krauthammer: "If you read the transcript, I think it's dead even. If you heard it on radio, Biden won. If you watched on television, he lost." And since the vast majority of people are going to watch this on television, then a slight advantage goes to Ryan. But the result is still close enough that it's not likely to alter how anyone votes. It was not a save for the Obama campaign, nor was it a knockout blow for the Romney campaign.
It was all summed up when Frank Luntz asked his focus group of undecided Ohioans if any of them had made up their minds based on tonight's debate. Nobody raised his hand.