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The VP debate — not 2004, more like 1976

Some on the left want to compare last night’s debate to the 2004 mismatch between Vice President Cheney and John Edwards. As I noted before the debate, there is a superficial similarity. In both instances an elderly, highly experienced incumbent vice president squared off against a fresh face. And now that the debate has occurred, I can point to another similarity — like Cheney, I believe that Biden rallied a base that was demoralized by a poor debate performance from the president.

But the similarities end there. In his debate with Edwards, Cheney was nothing like Biden. He conducted himself with dignity and reserve, even when Edwards tried to bring the homosexuality of one of Cheney’s daughters into the discussion.

Moreover, Ryan was nothing like the cloying, transparently phony Edwards. Sure, Ryan missed some opportunities and failed to match Biden’s force of personality. But Ryan showed good command of substance across a wide range of issues including foreign policy. Unlike Edwards, he was not just another pretty face.

To find the closest analogy to last night’s VP debate, I look all the way back to the very first one — the 1976 encounter between Walter Mondale and Robert Dole. In that debate, Mondale was the earnest, fresh looking candidate and Dole was the worldly, knowing cynic.

Early in the debate, I thought Dole was winning. Several times, as I recall, he used his dagger wit to puncture Mondale and knock him off of his high horse.

But as the debate progressed, Dole’s tone seemed to override his debating skill. In fairness, Dole didn’t indulge in overt sneering and jeering, the way Biden did last night. But his digs became tiresome, and his bad mood became mildly disturbing. To use the parlance of the time, Dole was a bummer.

As for Mondale, he just kept coming. Ryan did, as well. If anything, his game improved in the final half hour.

As I recall, the 1976 debate was widely viewed as a win for Mondale. In part, this was because, as his mood worsened, Dole attacked the Democrats for “their” wars, mentioning not just Vietnam and Korea, but also World War I and II (in which Dole was severely injured).

Biden, of course, made no such gaffe. But for many, his demeanor was a bummer. At a minimum, I imagine that, no matter what you have to say in a debate, it’s difficult to be seen as the winner when your behavior is as obnoxious and your tone as bitter as Biden’s was last night.

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