Joe Biden’s Rude Debate Laughter: The Joke’s on Him

Why the veep’s rude chortles throughout last night’s faceoff with Paul Ryan constituted a new low in debate etiquette.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In the last 40 years of presidential politics, Democrats have often derided their Republican rivals as jokers and buffoons. But they have never before laughed in their faces on national TV. In that sense, Joe Biden made history with his weird, wired performance in the vice-presidential debate—but he did so in a way that could easily damage the Obama campaign.

Though Americans eventually came to respect Gerald Ford for his decency and honor, the Carter campaign and its media allies happily mocked him as a dunce (despite his degree from Yale Law School) and a stumblebum. Carter himself, however, never snickered or guffawed at his opponent during any of their three debates in 1976—even when Ford committed his fatal gaffe of declaring that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

Dan Quayle, of course, became the object of relentless mockery by opponents and the press, while also drawing the most celebrated zinger in the history of televised debates (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”). But Democrat Lloyd Bentsen delivered that line with an understated, almost sorrowful tone and never tittered or rolled his eyes at the other guy. Even Al Gore, who later got in trouble for sighing audibly at some of George W. Bush's remarks when he ran for president in 2000, treated Quayle with the utmost respect in their vice-presidential debate of 1992.

As both president and presidential candidate, the second president Bush inspired a whole cottage industry of comedians who imitated or mocked his mangled syntax, his Texas swagger, and his purportedly unassailable ignorance and stupidity. But in six debates against fellow Ivy Leaguers Al Gore and John Kerry the only hint of open scorn came in the very first of those encounters when Gore actually hurt himself by trying to cut Bush down with sighs.

Finally, Sarah Palin’s moose-hunting exploits, chirpy delivery, disinterest in daily newspapers and powerful, puzzling Christian mama sexiness offered the ripest possible target to the comedy-industrial complex, yet when she faced Joe Biden in their widely-watched debate he behaved like a perfect gentleman. He smiled indulgently, even affectionately at times, but wisely avoided giving any discernible indication that he considered the first female GOP nominee anything less than a worthy opponent.

Why, then, did he decide to snicker, chuckle, grin, smirk and shake his head at the one GOP nominee for national office in the last 50 years that even partisan Democrats acknowledge as a serious, substantive, and formidable guy?

The rap on Paul Ryan has always been that he might prove too wonkish, numbers-driven and detail-oriented to connect with average Americans, not that he counted as some sort of laughing stock who’s beneath contempt.

It’s actually Biden himself who has inspired gales of bipartisan laughter with his potent parade of gaffes over the duration of his long political career. In fact, his strange strategy may have amounted to an attempt to take personal control of all the giggles in the room before they could be turned against him.

The oddest aspect of his patronizing performance involved the complete disconnect between his derisive laughter and anything that Paul Ryan actually said. Where, exactly, did the GOP nominee make some point so ridiculous, or express himself so clumsily, that the only appropriate response would be the uncontrollable urge to titter or chortle?

If the purpose was to rattle Ryan it clearly didn’t work: the GOP contender remained calm (perhaps too calm), smooth, polite, and self-possessed while the vice president of the United States rudely interrupted him more than two dozen times.

The debate became queasy, unpleasant, uncomfortable to watch, not because Biden overpowered his opponent on substance (he emphatically did not), but because the normal, reassuring, ritualized sense of congeniality and decorum seemed altogether lacking. When TV professionals analyze the viewing audience in detail, I’d be surprised if a huge number of debate watchers didn’t tune out the broadcast in disgust or at least uneasiness after the first half hour.

I watched the proceedings on a big screen together with 250 listeners from the Seattle flagship station for my radio show. In the discussion afterward, one of the women present said that Biden made her cringe by reminding her precisely of her abusive ex-husband. Another 23-year-old came up to me afterward and emphatically agreed, saying she had just left her own abusive relationship and that watching Biden’s antics gave her the creeps in the same way that her former boyfriend’s dismissive snickering always made her feel inadequate.

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Admittedly, they watched the proceedings from a conservative perspective and wouldn’t have voted for Obama-Biden anyway, but will the vice president’s nasty star turn ultimately work well with undecided voters who are, after all, disproportionately female?

To this point, the Delaware doofus always seemed cloaked in an invincible air of likeability. Good Old Joe might say outrageous and stupid things but he could easily be forgiven because he seemed warm-hearted and well-intentioned, like an old-fashioned, back-slapping neighborhood pol. No one worried too much over silly stunts or ludicrous remarks because he was, after all, just Good Old Joe and nobody takes vice presidents seriously anyway.

But his visibly arrogant behavior on his biggest stage to date may dent that armor permanently. Why did he take the risk?

Perhaps, in overcompensation for President Obama’s lackadaisical performance in Denver, he resolved to rally the base with his angry, aggrieved, condescending demeanor. No, it wasn’t presidential (Ryan definitely won by that standard) but no one expects vice presidents to act presidential until the unthinkable occurs and new circumstances require it.

Eight days after Obama looked far more listless and weary than Romney despite the fact that he is 14 years younger, Biden seemed vastly more adolescent and immature than Ryan despite the fact that he is 27 years older.

Maybe this fulfilled some diabolical master plan, proving that Biden will remain youthful enough to win the presidential run he has repeatedly hinted he plans to make, regardless of reaching age 74 just days after the election of 2016. In pleasing loyal Democrats by going after the opposition with such sneering ferocity, he may have cemented his role as frontrunner for the next nomination, regardless of the outcome of this incurably close election.

The biggest winner of this encounter?

Neither Biden nor Ryan, but probably Mitt Romney. As one physician (and former political candidate himself) noted to our enthusiastic debate crowd, Biden mentioned Obama only in passing, scarcely touching on his achievements, his inspiring leadership, or any grand new plans (what new plans?) for the future. Instead, he emphasized his own dubious role in major events. Ryan, by contrast, repeatedly spoke of Romney, warmly praising his qualifications, his character, his vision, and his five-point platform for recovery.

Yes, Biden performed as expected with his kitchen-sink assault on the GOP ticket, but the indispensable heavy-lifting remains for President Obama in the next two debates. In those exchanges, he must somehow make clear his new, uplifting goals for a new term and his fresh ideas for the road ahead, since only a minority of Americans would knowingly choose even an approximate replication of the polarization, poison, and paralysis of the last four years.