Perhaps Vice President Biden was looking for perfect balance in the debate world by being as aggressive in his debate as President Obama was timid in his. Biden even broke the golden rule of debating—never argue with the moderator unless you’re Newt Gingrich. Yet both men left their partisan bases happy by fighting hard for their side’s vision. The question that remains is, was this an “Al Gore moment” for the vice president who overcorrected through his interrupting, condescending laugh, and eye-rolling behavior throughout the debate, or will he be seen as the Obama campaign’s hero who put the campaign back on message. That decision will certainly be in the eye of partisan beholder.
For Paul Ryan the challenge was to prove himself to have presidential mettle. And he passed that test. He handled the foreign-policy questions competently and remained calm in the face of the full fire of the vice president. He was at times overly concerned with defending detail, and he almost seemed embarrassed when the vice president raised the issue of Ryan’s letter seeking stimulus funds. But his answer to the question of what do you say to the veteran about the tenor of the campaign, captured by the line “Leaders run to fix problems,” struck the visionary chord that has made him one of the icons of the Republican Party. And he was prepared to answer Biden on the 47 percent charge with his retort, “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”
The new format for the presidential debates continues to encourage high-quality exchanges between the candidates. The moderator maintained control of the debate, but both men were encouraged to engage each other and directly address each other's arguments more than in past formats. The proximity of the candidates seated at the table facilitated the fast pace and early engagement of their respective opponent.
And we learned last night that both men, like their bosses, have substantial policy differences and that both came prepared to defend and highlight those differences. In fact, their only moment of convergence came when both agreed that the calendar works the same way each year. Unlike his president, the vice president came prepared to use every weapon available to him. He cited the 47 percent remark and the governor’s taxes early in the debate and was consistently on offense against Congressman Ryan, even casting his mom as part of the 47 percent. But Ryan did not wilt and counterattacked effectively. The wide range of topics and the significant amount of time devoted to foreign policy kept the vice president from litigating the attacks on the Romney-Ryan economic policies that the Obama campaign may consider their most potent in the final days of the election.
Both men accomplished the goals of the vice presidential debate—advance the campaign’s message, adeptly represent the top of the ticket and convince the audience you’re prepared for the presidency. Perhaps the best defense of the president’s policies by Biden came in the debate over Iran. Biden pressed the case that Romney and Ryan could not identify what they would do differently from the president and that the course they have taken is keeping the Iranians in check. Ryan’s best moment representing his boss came in telling the story of the governor’s generosity in offering to pay the college costs of two sons of a family injured in a car accident. Neither veered off of their campaign’s message and both offered substantive defenses of their respective policies. Most importantly both demonstrated that they will not cede the ground in the battle for middle class easily, something lost on the president in his debate last week.
While neither committed a serious verbal gaffe (many will argue the vice president’s nonverbal style represented a gaffe), Biden tried to lure Ryan into a “Jack Kennedy” moment, but Ryan refused to take the bait. The debate lived up to its billing because of its pace, the significant clash over issues, the chance to become acquainted with Ryan, and the hype over the persona that Biden would take on in an attempt to recover the campaign’s message and image.
Perhaps the vice president’s brash style was intentional. It sent the signal that Team Obama hasn’t lost its spoil for the fight and may have set the president up for a more measured aggressive approach becoming of a president if Biden’s style was less so. It afforded the president the Goldilocks alternative in his next debate, where he can cast his attacks in just the right tone.
Still, in the end the debate probably will do little to change the current trajectory of the race since both met their partisans’ expectations. That task falls on the president. Both men did their jobs, Ryan perhaps more effectively. But the undercard is over; now back to the main event. Romney, Biden and Ryan have all performed. The pressure is now squarely on President Obama.