The vice-presidential debate tonight was a masterful, if uneven, performance by Joe Biden, showing the President a thing or two about how to emotionally connect with voters. Biden altered his tone throughout the debate to demonstrate his passion and excitement, while hammering Ryan repeatedly for his lack of specifics and outright distortions of the facts. His laughing and eye-rolling was too much, particularly early in the debate, but Biden’s straight-talking persona discounts some of the damage, and very few politicians can manage husky-sincere as well as Biden. He can – and did – claim that his frustration was due to Republican distortions and passion to get the truth out. People like an angry but sincere truth-teller over a slick but insincere salesperson, and that’s a distinction the Obama campaign will want to make repeatedly.
In contrast, Ryan was wonkish and too emotionally even – except in one revealing moment in which he disparaged Biden for being under pressure. Ryan seemed for that moment far more unpresidential than anything Biden did all night, which shows how fine a line you have to walk when making an emotional appeal to voters: everything matters, including your overall persona. He seemed older than Biden, which is odd seeing as his youth is a prime advantage of his candidacy. He provided an emotionally cold performance which is surprising for such an ideological candidate. His final address to the audience seemed over-prepared and fake.
One powerful moment: in the question on abortion, Biden managed the impossible by making his pro-choice position seem more catholic than Ryan’s pro-life position. He effectively turned the religious liberty issue on its head (or, really, back onto its feet) by asserting he would not impose his faith beliefs on others through the law. He name-checked specific Catholic hospitals. And he spoke of Catholic social Doctrine in support of his economic beliefs. He basically out-Catholiced Ryan from the left, seeming more sincere and genuine in the process. That’s extremely impressive in a country where faith often seems to be a winning point for conservatives.
Ultimately, Ryan suffered because he had no overall narrative for the debate. He made the classic mistake of believing that his job was to answer each individual question. it’s not – the goal is to paint a picture, tell a story, lead the viewers in a dance. He had some respectable steps but he didn’t have a choreographed routine. Ryan introduced a narrative toward the end, arguing that Obama makes speeches instead of offering solutions, and he should have made that the theme of his whole remarks. Biden, in contrast, repeatedly questioned the integrity of Romney-Ryan, suggesting that they say one thing and do another.
This was exceptionally clear when Biden revealed that Ryan had himself requested stimulus funds for businesses in his state. “He doesn’t want the stimulus for the country, but he wants the stimulus for himself”, he seemed to say. Ryan had basically no response to this: he sounded feeble and confused, offering a lame excuse. And if that story sticks – you can’t trust these Republicans, they’ll say one thing and do another – that’s extremely problematic for the Republicans.
What Biden did tonight, fundamentally, was re-energize the Democratic base. He will be criticized for his laughs and smirks, but the true-blue Democrats themselves will love it. They will go out to register to vote and they will go out to volunteer. Biden just blunted the Romney-Ryan momentum, and it’s just what Obama ordered: a cup of Joe.