Vice Presidential debate review: Joe Biden and Paul Ryan grinned like sharks, biting each other

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Image Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

It was a battle of smiles and smirks as Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan debated each other on Thursday night. Both men were eager beavers — beavers showing their choppers repeatedly, in often pained grimaces, condescending smirks, or incredulous glances — trying strenuously to provide a contrast to the first Obama-Romney debate. The words that emerged from beneath those grins were often contentious, frequently interrupting each other. And except for one big misstep in phrasing an important question, moderator Martha Raddatz was satisfyingly assertive in refereeing the squabbles and keeping the debate moving at a pace that allowed for many positions to be challenged and for drama to unfold.

President Obama said earlier this week that he thought he’d been “too polite” in the first debate. No one will ever say that about Joe Biden in this one. Indeed, to the extent that TV debates are scored on the basis of images and projected moods, viewers are likely to be divided, because the aggressiveness of Biden — an aggressiveness that expressed itself as much in humor and mock-disbelief as in anger — will be off-putting to some (and thus lead to “Biden lost”) or seem like a refreshing directness to other viewers (thus leading to the opinion that “Biden won”). But what of Ryan? I think he wins or loses on the basis of the reflected mass-audience, mass-media judgment on Biden’s performance. Ryan obviously arrived ready to look like a calm moderate, but his own battery of facial expressions frequently conveyed qualities he probably didn’t intend, either: condescension, smugness, and — occasionally in the foreign policy area — blankness. In this sense, the debate was Biden’s to win or lose.

Post-debate analysis on cable news bears this out. On Fox News, Brit Hume said that the “smirking, laughing… mugging by the Vice President” was “rude.” On Fox, it was asserted that viewers would take away the image of “a cranky old man to some extent debating a polite young man.” By contrast, over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow said she thought viewers would interpret Biden’s smiles as signaling to viewers, “this guy is lying.”

While neither debater could bring himself to use that word, “lie,” Biden came closest when he said that Ryan’s assaults on various aspects of Obama’s foreign policy were “a bunch of malarkey… not a single thing he said was true.” Biden asserted throughout the debate that many of Ryan’s claims were “inaccurate” and “all this loose talk” and used the phrase “a bunch of stuff,” which Raddatz asked him to define. The consensus by both men, who exchanged smiling glances at this, was that the Vice President was calling bull— on Rep. Ryan but everyone knew he couldn’t use that word.

Ryan provoked the Kentucky audience to break the rule of silence when he landed a laugh-line based on the idea that Biden prone to gaffes: “I think the Vice President very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” Big guffaws from the crowd. But the context was significant: This was Ryan’s response to Biden raising the subject of Mitt Romney’s notorious “47% speech” to a private gathering. The joke got a response, but the defense of his running mate went largely unanswered.

I was dismayed at the way Raddatz phrased a crucial question intended to elicit each man’s position on abortion. The last thing you want to encourage a politician to do is ask him or her to speak “personally” about something, because that just opens the floodgates for a lot of sentimental anecdotes and high-minded chatter. So my heart sank when Raddatz said, “I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country: Please talk personally about this, if you could.”

What followed was an opportunity for each man to intone piously about how important religion is to him. Of course it is — you can’t find anyone running for office who’d say otherwise. It gave Ryan an opportunity to talk about the ultrasound image of his first-born child; very nice, but I can pass around my pictures, too, and so can millions of other parents. It also, unfortunately, allowed Ryan to slip away from answering the question of whether a Romney presidency would result in a concerted effort to ban abortion, among other things. But it also led Biden into his most eloquent response of the night, in which he first praised Catholic social doctrine and the way it talks about taking care of “those who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. ” Then Biden drew a distinction between the teachings of his (like Ryan’s) Catholic Church and the imposition of those teachings “on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews. I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that — women they can’t control their body.”
As the first-rate Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote about another vice presidential debate, the 2004 one between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, “the debate was like a tea party for pit bulls.” Biden and Ryan came out showing their teeth, each in his own way trying to go alpha-male to inject some adreniline in the debate process. Now it’s on to the next Presidential debate, to see whether Obama was home not just taking notes, but watching what was going on on the screen.
Twitter: @kentucker

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