Biden won, I think. But it was by no means clear-cut. Both Paul Ryan and Joe Biden represented themselves well; I just thought Ryan had a tougher hand to play.
Martha Radatz was the moderator, and I thought she was spectacular. The format was excellent, too, I thought. Instead of those podiums, which turned the first Presidential debate into an exchange of stump speech sound bites, it was a treat to see the guys sit at a table with a journalist who really knows her stuff, and get grilled, by her and by each other. I think this debate raised the level of political discourse. I found it edifying.
The word ‘debate’ suggests an exchange of views on issues, with the ‘winner’ decided by facts and evidence and logic and persuasive language. But that’s not how human beings decide things. In the first debate, President Obama ‘seemed’ passive, unengaged, maybe even (shudder) weak. Governor Romney ‘seemed’ confident, in command, powerful. We assess using the tools of emotional intelligence, not logic and reason. When commentators say, with an air of world-weary cynicism, that campaigns aren’t decided by issues, but by personality, when we say it’s about which of them is a better actor, well, that’s right. What’s wrong with that? A good actor projects emotion and projects personality. We rely on these extra-rational personality assessments, whether we’re talking about who we date, or what we think of those new neighbors, or who we should hire, or who we should vote for.
That’s why, for me, Biden had the best moment of the night. During the Presidential debate, Romney kept pounding on the 716 billion that Obama supposedly ‘stole’ from Medicare to fund Obamacare. Obama’s answers, though technically accurate, ‘seemed’ unconvincing. If you follow the issues clearly, and understand what all that’s about, you know that Romney’s faux outrage over that 700 billion dollar Medicare theft was completely mendacious, that the same Medicare Advantage savings was in Ryan’s budget, that in fact, Obamacare is fully funded (as vetted by the CBO). There was, actually, a lot outrage on the left over this issue, a sense that Romney really got away with a whopper there. But most voters haven’t studied the issues closely, and probably found Romney more convincing. Joe Biden did the numbers thing, but then he said, in essence, ‘I’m a veteran Democratic Congressman. These guys have been trying to get rid of Medicare for years. Who do you trust.” While looking particularly trustworthy. And that’s the point, of course, the older man invoking patriarchal gravitas.
So Ryan seemed sort of wonkish, which is good, that’s the role he’s been cast in: conservative numbers guy, the A student, the math nerd. He seemed pretty reasonable; never really raised his voice much, and at times, even showed off a little. One moment came during the Afghanistan section, when he carefully delineated the various insurgent factions facing off against our military. He came across as pretty well informed. It served him well, despite the fact that his position on Afghanistan frankly didn’t seem much different from Obama/Biden’s, and that neither of them have a coherent rationale for why we’re still there, or what we can realistically hope to accomplish.
Biden has a reputation for being slow on his feet, a gaffe-prone and tired old guy. I thought he did splendidly, though. A couple of times, he stopped and seemed to be searching for a word or phrase, but that’s okay, that fits what we already think about him and his personality. He’s not particularly smooth or articulate. But he seemed much better informed than we probably expected, a senior statesman chuckling at the foolish vagaries of youth.
Chuckling, though. And I’m not sure how that polled. Al Gore is famous for blowing his first debate in 2000 by sighing a lot every time Bush said something foolish. As it happens, Bush said a lot of foolish things in that debate, and Gore sighed a lot. And the polls showed that Bush ‘won’ that debate, in the court of emotional intelligence, and that Gore ‘lost’ it, by committing the unpardonable sin of coming across as unlikeable. Bush came across as a regular dude, persecuted by the know-it-all smart aleck. Yikes.
It might have happened last night too. But I don’t think so. A lot depends on how well their performance fit into our pre-conceived narrative about them. The late night comics are a great guide to that terrain. Leno and Letterman and Conan and those guys know they can get a laugh reliably with any joke involving Bill Clinton and sex. Bill Clinton: playboy–that’s his narrative and his character in it. They can get a laugh reliably with any joke about George W. Bush being dumb. Rimshot. With Biden, it’s Joe Biden: doofus. Like your old uncle who keeps putting his foot in his mouth at parties; that’s Joe. Obama doesn’t really have one, though. Obama=professorial? Not such a great punch-line. For Romney, they can fall back on Mormon jokes. Mormon equals moralistic naif. Jon Stewart had one the other night: something was ‘more evil than . . . coffee.’
Well, Joe Biden won last night because he did seem informed, he did seem on top of the issues, plus he seemed passionate and involved and strong. Yes, he kept interrupting Ryan’s answers, and yes, he laughed at him a lot. But that shouldn’t hurt him, I don’t think, because it can be fitted, with some minor adjusting, into his ‘doofus uncle’ persona.
Polling data suggest that Republican tshought their guy won, and Democrats thought their guy did. I think they both did well. But undecideds gave it to Biden. Obama’s re-election chances improved after last night. And that’s the bottom line.