The Corner

Biden Won on Points

My first take on the debate appeared in Canada’s Globe and Mail here.

It concludes (a) that Biden won on points, (b) that Ryan did reasonably well, and (c) that Biden’s initial win on points might be reversed both by the fallout over his false claim about Benghazi and the intelligence services and by hostile reaction from women to his amazingly blatant mugging and grinning at the camera during Ryan’s arguments. Those two predictions look like being confirmed this morning, and in next week’s debate President Obama will have to spend precious time digging Biden out from under his Benghazi, er, terminological inexactitudes.

That said, my conclusion that Biden won is still more or less the exact opposite to the view expressed by almost all contributors to the Corner. Mark Steyn and Michael Graham are more or less on my side of this second debate, which is to say that I agree with Mark that this was an opportunity missed and with Michael that Biden’s victory was in part the triumph of bad manners. But most of the other contributors, in particular Yuval Levin, impressively cite chapter and verse to show that Ryan got the better of Biden on topic after topic. Moreover, if one goes by the transcript, they are largely right. So why are they also wrong?

Well, the debate was not a viva voce examination for Ph.D. candidates. It was a theatrical event, a verbal duel, a clash of political gladiators. It was not a clash of ideas, therefore, but one of words and impressions. And so, as I argue in my Globe and Mail piece, the verbal delivery of the two debaters and the character of their speeches were very important factors in persuading the audience.

On the first, verbal delivery, Biden was excellent from the start. He spoke slowly, deliberately, in a measured way, and clearly. Ryan by contrast spoke rapidly — and to my ears, nervously, even though speaking slowly is exercise one of debating and of public speaking generally. It ensures that the speaker is understood by the audience and it gives him that crucial little more time to marshal his thoughts effectively. Thus, Biden appeared to be authoritative and Ryan slightly confusing, almost irrespective of the content of what each of them said. 

On the formal character of what they said, Biden had arrived with a small set of ideas that he had boiled down to a handful of (largely hostile) soundbites that he repeated whenever the chance arose. Ryan had mugged up almost the whole range of potential policy questions and, when asked about one of them, he wanted to get out the five or six points about it that he knew. The result was a contrast between a few simple arguments being put across effectively (Biden) and words tumbling forth in an impressive but forgettable stream of wonkery (Ryan.) 

It’s worth adding that Ryan got better as the debate wore on. His abortion answer forced him to speak a little more slowly to show that he grasped the moral seriousness of the question. And the force of his persuasiveness rose as a result. Biden got worse as the debate wore on; he sensed his elaborate semaphore act was distracting Ryan and took it up several notches. As a result he began to appear positively rude and, as I argue in the Globe and Mail, many women who are sympathetic to Biden on abortion will have been irritated that he was being so nasty to this nice young man. Even so . . .

Who won the arguments? At lot of the time, Ryan won. Who won the debate overall? In my view Biden won on points (with the important qualifications above.) 

And there’s a wider lesson. Republicans often say with pride that the GOP is now the party of ideas in contrast to the ideologically exhausted Democrats. Well, that was certainly true last night — Ryan was overflowing with ideas and Biden was comically free of them. The fact that Biden either won or held his own nonetheless suggests that there are things the American people value above an outpouring of ideas — probably such things as authority, an impression of competence, moral clarity, and (as Mark and Jonah both say) even seriousness about serious things. If Ryan had called Biden on his frivolity as Reagan called Carter on his dishonesty — lightly but unmistakably — then he might well have won the debate then and there. And not on points.


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