The Corner

About the Debate

I’m sorry for the delay in chiming in (travel and a mild case of what seems to be bubonic plague conspired against timely posting — and against writing this week’s G-File). There’s not much more to say about it that hasn’t already been said. I agree in particular with Yuval and Ramesh’s comments below. 

If I had to characterize the whole shebang I’d say that Ryan underperformed to his detriment and Biden overperformed to his detriment.

The maniacal giggles, the coprophagic smirks, the constant interruptions were not only rude they made the debate unenjoyable to watch for pretty much anyone not seeking revenge for Obama’s debate defeat the week before. The Left seems to be making one of the great mistakes of punditry: assuming that what you want a politician to say or do must also be good politics. As Yuval says, “The MSNBC types needed someone to be a jerk toward Paul Ryan to his face, and they got it.” But that’s not what undecided or independent voters needed from Biden. And what Biden gave them was nearly the entire inventory of the Jerk Store.

It says something interesting about Washington that Biden’s schtick is seen as effective. I think part of it stems from his popularity among the Old Guard of D.C. To be sure, he’s a backslapper with journalists and pols. But it also stems from the aloofness of the D.C. establishment that thinks it knows what “real voters” like and that Biden’s “middle class Joe” b.s. is it. It is a strange kind of cynical condescension when a journalist finds Biden’s cornpone act personally unconvincing but is sure that the little people will eat it up. The problem is that there’s remarkably little evidence for this (heck, going into the debate it was Biden, not “wonky” Ryan who was less likable)And going by the instant polls and the dial-lines Biden’s act fell short.

On substance, while Biden did get in his shots, he also shot himself in the foot most notably on Benghazi and on abortion — both in terms of the Supreme Court (We will have no litmus tests! I guarantee only pro-choice appointees!) and the role Catholicism plays in his thinking (as Ramesh notes below, Biden isn’t as up on his Church’s teaching as he thinks). 

As for Ryan, I think he was simply too deferential. There were countless times when he could have sunk his blade into Biden and instead let it drop to the floor. One particularly aggravating moment was when Ryan asked Biden if he knew what the unemployment rate in Scranton was. Biden said “I sure do.” I’d bet the store Biden had no clue. Why not follow up, “Ok, what is it?” Biden said — twice — that he always says what he means. Really? Surely there were retorts to be made here. So he meant it when he told a guy in a wheelchair to stand up and take a bow? He meant it when he said we should send a check for $200 million to Iran after 9/11? He meant it when he said FDR went on TV in 1929 to reassure the American people (before we had TV and before FDR was president)? He meant it when he said the middle class has been crushed over the last four years?

I think Ryan was right not to let Biden bait him into losing his cool. Ryan certainly came across as the more appealing, serious, and decent politician. But he would have done himself and his ticket a great service if he had simply turned to Biden and said something like, “Mr. Vice President these are serious issues and serious disagreements about the future of our country. I don’t find them funny and, frankly, I find your behavior here tonight beneath the dignity of your office.” It would have gelded Biden, elicited spontaneous applause in the audience, and endured as the most memorable soundbite of the whole debate. And, it would have been true. 

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