Bleeding Staunched

Biden Delivers the Needed Shot in the Arm

Biden rises to his occasion and then some.

Win McNamee

Joe Biden won the debate. Not nearly as decisively as Mitt Romney won last week’s obviously. Paul Ryan had some good moments, and he at least arrived prepared. I guess the snap CNN poll says he won narrowly, 48-44. But a CBS snap poll gave it to Biden by a much wider 50-31.

The CBS people are right. The pressure here was much greater on Biden than Ryan. If Biden had flubbed this the way Obama did, this race might have been done. But he didn’t, and he did all the things he needed to do:

*He punched, he came to play, he gave the Democratic base the shot in the arm it desperately needed after last week.

*He made sure he worked in the main critiques of Romney—on Medicare, on taxes, on the 47 percent, which if anything he returned to one time too many.

*He didn’t win every issue, but he won the important ones. His riff on taxes was terrific, his Medicare answer was maybe a little confusing to people not up on the policy details, but at least he was playing offense and Ryan defense. And his answer on religion and abortion was fantastic. I guarantee you that the gender gap reopened a little tonight. Maybe more than a little.

*He was very forceful on Afghanistan. He may not necessarily be right on the merits. But the American people just want out of that war, and that’s what he said would happen.

*And no malapropisms! Biden very clearly outperformed expectations.

Ryan underperformed his. Again, he was not terrible by any means. He was probably at his best at the very beginning, on Benghazi, where he delivered some strong lines. Biden was pretty good here, too—he made sure to raise the fact that Ryan had voted to decrease the diplomatic security budget. Ryan was persuasive on the specific question of consular security, but when he tried to broaden it out to a case about American weakness, that was just for the Fox crowd, and I don’t think it resonate much beyond.

But he was worst on Afghanistan. We agree with a 2014 exit deadline, we don’t agree with it. There, he got caught, and you could see on his face that he knew he got caught. I also gave it to Biden on points, barely, in the discussions on Iran and Syria.

Biden didn’t say it in quite as direct a way as he needed to, but he was trying to say and mostly saying: So tell the people, what exactly would you do that we’re not? You can only mean sending in troops. War. When Ryan had to deny that that was what he meant, the differences between the two tickets pretty much vaporized.

Yes, Biden interrupted too much. This is what the wingers are going to be trying to push now. And his smile. “Condescending,” they will say. And they’ll bitch about Martha Raddatz. This is the kind of thing people do when they know their guy lost. Raddatz was very good for the first hour. I loved that she opened up with Benghazi; let’s just dig right in.

But she was weak in the last half hour. Those last three questions were awful. Complaints about civility? Campaigns are nasty. That’s how it is. I was shocked, by the way, when I saw a couple tweets to the effect that Ryan’s answer to that question was his best moment of the night. But he just went on the attack. He was supposed to be reassuring a civic-minded soldier that there was something redeeming about our political culture!

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So the question is, what’s the impact? I doubt it’s huge. But it’s real. Democrats should be re-energized. Hopefully Obama himself will be energized. Biden just looked energetic. He looked happy up there, looked like he wanted the thing to go on for hours. I watched both men closely while the other was talking. At the beginning, Ryan held his chin up, looked confident. By the end, he was holding his face lower. Biden’s expression never changed.

Depending on how many people watched, here’s what may have happened: bleeding stauched; momentum moved mildly back in the Democratic direction; table set for Obama to build on Biden’s tax and Medicare arguments in the next debate. For a guy who often makes the news only when he says something screwy, that’s a nice night’s work. I’d love the irony if the story of this campaign on Nov. 7 is that Biden salvaged Obama’s error.