Well, now we know which Joe Biden decided to show up on Thursday night. If the vice presidential debate were a movie, it might be called Bazooka Joe Rides Again.
Like a bulldog picking up the scent of fresh meat and not quite sure where to find it, Biden tore up everything in sight. He went after moderator Martha Raddatz when she challenged him on defense cuts. He went after the time clock when he thought he was getting cheated. (It turned out he spoke for longer than his opponent did.) And there wasn’t a sentence Rep. Paul Ryan uttered that was not the subject of a Biden snarl or sneer or alarmingly white-toothed grin or laughter or interruption or all of the above.
Ryan is in his early 40s and yet he looked younger. Commenting on his vanilla—some might even say “hokey”—demeanor, my wife said he reminded her of the father on Leave It to Beaver. But Ryan didn’t really matter in this encounter. Not for a moment. Whether you thought Biden “won” the debate or not—I certainly did—the vice president was the only subject of conversation once it was over.
If you care about debate instapolls—I don’t—one on CBS found that Biden won over some undecided voters. But if there are people out there who still can’t decide who they want to be their president, after a year or more of listening to all of this noise, I’m not really that interested in their opinions on anything.
Republicans, meanwhile, focused on Biden’s behavior. He was a bully. He was rude. He was mean. Apparently people in some focus groups felt the same way. Was Biden overheated at times? Maybe. But if Republicans are complaining about the manner of the other guy instead of bragging about their own, you pretty much know who won. Even Donald Trump called the debate “pretty even.” If he thought for a moment even the tiniest case could be made for a Republican victory, the maestro of hype and self-promotion would have made it. As yet another sign they thought the night went to Biden, many Republicans also were quick to pounce on the moderator as being “biased.”
This, by the way, is getting to be a tiresome mien within the GOP: if our candidate is behind in the polls, then the polls are skewed. If our candidate is ahead in those same polls, then the polls are great. If our candidate loses a debate, then the fix was in. If our candidate wins a debate, then the moderator was a genius. The party of Lincoln needs to be careful it doesn’t start to look like a mob of paranoid wackos.
The new(est) line on the right is that Biden’s display will hurt the president like Al Gore’s constant sighing and otherwise obnoxious behavior hurt him in his debates against George W. Bush. That is not likely. Vice presidents don’t really matter in the greater scheme of things. If a vice presidential performance cost anyone an election, then George H.W. Bush would have lost to Michael Dukakis in 1988.
If anything, last night Biden helped President Obama by restoring some energy to a demoralized base. Biden was everything the president was not in his encounter with Mitt Romney: feisty, passionate, eager, the “happy warrior” that Obama has never seemed to be. On his Twitter account last night, Bill Maher wrote: “Hello, 911? There’s an old man beating a child on my TV.” Ryan did not perform that badly. This was, however, the congressman’s first debate on national television, and Biden’s 1,000,000th. The contrast was apparent. When Ryan kept mentioning his hometown of Janesville, it seemed like something he was told to say. To remind people he was human. When Biden talked about his hometown of Scranton, by contrast, it seemed natural. When you consider all four of the candidates we’ve seen so far in these debates, Biden, of all, people seems the most real.
Don’t be fooled. With this performance, Biden did himself a lot of favors Thursday night. And if Obama should lose this November, “Bazooka Joe” might make a more credible candidate in 2016 than Hillary Clinton fans thought he would just 24 hours ago.