The recent vice presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and challenger Paul Ryan was a fiery one to be sure, and now that a few days have passed and the outcome of the debate has been properly digested, several judgments can be made. One observation that is inarguably true is that Joe Biden was rude – really rude. The first half or so of the debate was characterized by Biden’s repeated smirking grins and snide chuckles to himself; maybe Biden didn’t learn his boss’ lesson from the last debate – the cameras are on you even when your opponent is speaking. By about the midpoint of the debate, Biden perhaps realized just how rude he was coming off as and so he let up on the crude displays of amusement.
However, Biden was persistent in one tactic: interrupting Ryan. Again and again, Biden would loudly intrude when Ryan was answering a question to interject a claim of misinformation on Ryan’s part. But Biden’s interruptions were not just attempts to real-time fact check Ryan; they also included some very unnecessary and poorly thought out derisions. For example, when Ryan was attempting to provide historical support for Romney’s plan by stating that “Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth”, Biden apparently thought it would be great opportunity for a Lloyd Bentsen-style zinger sound bite, so he sarcastically interjected “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?”. Biden’s statement was obviously in reference to the 1988 vice presidential debate where Bentsen declared “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” in response to Dan Quayle’s qualification of himself by means of a comparison to Jack Kennedy. However, there are two problems with Biden’s attempted zinger: Ryan was comparing his ticket’s policy, not his or Romney’s personal qualifications, to Kennedy’s policies and where as Bentsen made his zinger serious and resolute, Biden’s came across as barely half-baked and belittling. Luckily, Ryan had the guts to call out Biden for his rudeness, saying to Biden “I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don’t keep interrupting each other”. Take note, Mr. Biden: that is how you zing.
Ryan was absolutely right in observing that Biden’s loud and loose cannon spectacle was clearly an attempt to remedy for Obama’s virtual failure to show up for the previous debate. Obama, as he might put it, got a real shellacking from, of all people, his own supporters regarding his severely lackluster performance, and so it was up to Biden to relight the Democratic base’s enthusiasm. Indeed, his aggressive and take-no-prisoners approach surely made many a liberal beam with delight. But here’s the problem for Team Obama: the debates are not supposed to be about firing up the base – that is the job of the conventions. The debates are the candidates’ best opportunity to make an appeal to moderates, independents, and the ever-valuable undecided voters who often tune into the debates to get an unfiltered look at the tickets. What a liberal Democrat considers a fully appropriate refusal to accept Ryan’s lies, an independent considers a rude and ignoble refusal to let Ryan have his chance to explain the ticket’s policies. Many saw Biden’s performance as his opportunity to save the sinking ship that was the Obama campaign following the first debate. Unfortunately, Bidenoverdid it. His (in the most positive view) passionate attacks against the Romney-Ryan ticket prevented a liberal desertion, but his crudeness and crass behavior only added more support to the argument that the Obama campaign is becoming desperate and will go to no end to sidestep the incumbent’s record by focusing on unpopular aspects of the challenger.
Going into the next debate between Obama and Romney, all eyes are going to be on the President. Biden managed to keep the party faithful from revolting, but now Obama has to stand and deliver on his own. He’ll have to criticize Romney’s proposed policies without sinking to Biden’s level on debate style, but importantly, he will also have to convince the American people that not only is Mitt Romney’s plan wrong for America, but that his own plan is right.