I had the odd experience of first listening to the debate (or rather the first hour of the debate) on the radio; then watching the debate over again on video.
On radio, Biden was … what's the word? … Oh yeah: terrible. Impatient and dismissive, punctuated by forced, faked little laughs and peevish demands for more airtime. Ryan's voice, by contrast, had a timbre of sincerity, even when he was being evasive, as for example when he sought to escape Martha Raddatz's demand for more specifics on how the Romney tax plan would work.
When he demanded that the "folks" trust him, he sounded a corny old pol.
But on TV, Biden seemed somehow much better: impassioned rather than impatient, aggressive rather than dismissive. Ryan's superior poise and courtesy - the sincere timbre of his voice that resonated so nicely on radio - seemed suddenly defensive and weak: the indicators of a competitor who doesn't want to take and hold the center of the arena.
On this second view, I was struck most by Biden's relentless hammering of the points most likely to resonate with voters: the auto rescue, withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, and the economic interests of the middle class.
And I was struck again by the GOP ticket's pronoun trouble. One of Ryan's most powerful set pieces was his explication of how the Obama-Biden team's plans to allow the Bush tax cuts to lapse would touch the middle class. It culminated thus:
And so the next time you hear them say, don't worry about it, we'll get a few wealthy people to pay their fair share, watch out, middle class. The tax bill is coming to you.
That's why we're saying we need fundamental tax reform.
"You" and "we" back-to-back. But who's the "you"? Who's the "we"?
Biden used the phrase "middle class" 24 times; Ryan only eight times. And although Biden may see the middle class fully as much from the outside as Ryan does, he did remember for the duration of the debate to draw a personal connection, not to speak of middle-class voters only as a vote-rich target group:
My friend says that 30 percent of the American people are takers. They — Romney points out, 47 percent of the people won't take responsibility. He's talking about my mother and father. And he's talking about the places I grew up in, my neighbors in Scranton and Claymont.
He's talking about — he's talking about the people that have built this country. All they're looking for, Martha — all they're looking for is an even shot. When they've been given the shot, they've done it. They've done it. Whenever you level the playing field, they've been able to move.
And they want a little bit of peace of mind. And the president and I are not going to rest until that playing field is leveled, they in fact have a clear shot and they have peace of mind, until they can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, honey, it's going to be OK. It's going to be OK. That's what this is all about.
A lot of phony-baloney there, no doubt. But also - a connection dangerously missing from a Ryan presentation that oftentimes seemed to speak from a position far above the concerns and struggles of the great American middle.
We want everybody to succeed. We want to get people out of poverty, in the middle class, on to lives of self-sufficiency. We believe in opportunity and upward mobility. That's what we're going to push for in a Romney administration.
A fine thought. But it would have been more finely expressed had the "we" in Ryan's mouth more often referred to the country, and less to a party or a political operation.