VP Debate: No Winners, But No Big Losers Either

Ryan seemed canned. The Vice President seemed like a jerk. All in all, a moderately dispiriting display.

There was an interesting exchange on MSNBC after last night's debate when one of the hosts asked one of the string of professional Democrats who were streaming through how she thought Biden had done. I paraphrase, but her answer was roughly: "I thought he was great. He really showed contempt for Paul Ryan." Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley enthusiastically agreed that yes, Biden had been really contemptuous, which was great.

What an odd thing to celebrate. Not "Biden was really good on foreign policy" or "Biden outlined a vision of America that will resonate with voters", but "Biden showed contempt for Paul Ryan." The oddest thing was that no one--not the guest, not the hosts, not Governor O'Malley--seemed to think there was anything strange about it. Though Governor O'Malley seemed to belatedly realize that it didn't sound good, and tried to recover with a tepid, "I mean, I don't think he was trying to . . . "

If so, he was about the only one. Biden launched into the eye rolling and the smirking, the head shaking and the laughing, and of course, the constant interrupting, nearly as soon as Ryan started talking. I assume that means it was part of their debate coaching. I mean, I don't think that he intended to come off as an obnoxious eighth grader heckling a classmate, or to actually shout himself hoarse with his constant interruptions. I'd guess they told him to come across as genially disappointed, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, and he kind of went off the rails.

Both candidates looked far overcoached for this debate; you could hear the hesitations as they desperately tried to overstuff their responses with canned lines. And that overcoaching showed up in their demeanor. Paul Ryan was speaking so slowly that it sometimes sounded as if he was reading off a teleprompter set at half speed; this made him seem uncertain of his memorized answers, not deliberate. And Biden--well, we seemed to be watching him going through a second puberty, complete with voice changes.

Yet I suspect that MSNBC was right: this was what the Democratic base wanted to see. Yes, they also wanted to hear him defend their issues. But they already agree with him on the issues. Their biggest desire was just for someone to express their disdain for the Republican Party, and particularly its rising young star--to display their collective contempt in a public venue. I'm not sure exactly why this is so important, but I seem to recall that the same dynamic from Republicans in 2004. There's a lesson there about where American politics is headed, and it's a pretty grim one.

I thought Biden would have won solidly, if not overwhelmingly, on the content of his responses. Unsurprisingly, since the moderateor is a foreign correspondent, there was a great deal of foreign policy, which is not Ryan's forte. He had a lot of prepared bullet points, but he utterly failed to distinguish Romney/Ryan's foreign policy from Obama/Biden's, much less to do so in a way that made a compelling case for a change of administrations. "People will be much more scared of us than they are of you" might have worked in 2004. But by 2012, I think the electorate is pretty tired of the "peace through strength" approach.

But unfortunately I thought Biden threw that away that lead with his behavior. It's hard to get enthusiastic about a candidate who apparently might go full frontal jackass at any moment. I've seen a bunch of progressives dismiss this as conservative carping, but watching CNN's ticker of undecided voter sentiment, it seemed to me that every time Joe Biden started talking over Paul Ryan, Ryan's ratings went up. And it was the first thing that the CNN hosts, most of whom I guarantee are not Romney/Ryan voters, commented on. The panels of undecided voters also brought it up--and none of them said, "It made Vice President Biden seem really authoritative and in control". Some of the commentary this morning seemed so suggest that if progressives just insist sufficiently loudly that it was awesome, everyone else will have to agree. I think this rather overestimates both the ability to "work the refs" in the media, and also, the power of doing so.

If I were a GOP strategist right now, I'd be stringing together clips of Joe Biden smirking and laughing while Paul Ryan says something that sounds perfectly normal. On the other hand, there are reasons no one on either side is interested in having me as a political consultant.

Ryan kept his cool, and if he'd been able to make a more forceful case on foreign policy, he might have walked away with it. But he didn't, perhaps because foreign policy is not really a big interest of the Romney/Ryan campaign. He was clearly at his best on the budget--though perhaps a little too detailed. On foreign and social policy, he sounded rehearsed.

At the end of the debate, Sean Trende tweeted "What a strange debate." Now that it's all over, including the shouting, that was my take as well. It was way down in the weeds of foreign policy issues that I doubt many Americans could follow, and neither candidate made themselves look particularly good. Yet I think each of them gave their base what they wanted: Ryan passionately defended the Medicare vouchers and tough abortion laws, while Biden passionately defended the administration's record, and er, passionately disdained Paul Ryan. I doubt it did much for anyone else, but maybe that wasn't the point.

Update: Apparently, in this case, GOP strategists agree with me, for once. It will be interesting to see if this shows up on television. Even if you think Biden's contempt was entirely deserved, this ad makes him look pretty awful. I now understand why candidates are told they have to exercise face control during these things.