Score this for Ryan: I’m certain that it was Biden’s plan to try to get under Ryan’s skin, drive Ryan off his core strength (his passionate wonkiness), cause him to make a mistake, lose his composure, or look too young and unready for high office. Biden utterly failed to do this. Ryan kept his cool throughout. I hate ever to agree with David Gergen, but Ryan won on style points. And style points count for a lot in these things.
Despite the obvious asymmetries between the two men that had conservative hearts palpitating that Ryan would crush the egregious Biden, I never saw it that way for a simple reason: the format of these debates is not congenial to Ryan’s strength as a wonk and an intellectual. If this was a formal Lincoln-Douglas style debate with set piece opening arguments and extended substantive rebuttals, it would be a different matter. Add to it the dynamic of last week’s debate face plant by Obama, and it was a sure thing that Biden would be at his egregious worst and that the media would run with the narrative that Biden had “turned things around” no matter how it went. As such, there were high risks in attempting to match Biden’s aggressiveness. Ryan was well-served by “staying within himself,” as they say in sports contexts.
While Ryan missed some opportunities (though not all of them—Ryan’s line that “You of all people should know that words sometimes don’t come out right” got the biggest laugh of the night from the audience), it would have been a mistake to lower himself to Biden’s level. Most of the early snap polls showed that Biden’s antics didn’t play well, especially with women. Peggy Noonan’s assessment seems to strike the right balance. Try this thought experiment: suppose Biden had conducted himself with more dignity and grace? Ryan’s narrower range would have been a much bigger problem. It’s almost as though Ryan and his team recognized that rope-a-dope was the best strategy.
Vice Presidential debates never seem to matter much, though that’s what the experts say about presidential debates, too, and just as this year’s first presidential debate seems to be quite significant, perhaps the VP debate will have slightly more effect than in the past, too. In this respect, think back for a moment to the first Bush-Kerry debate in 2004, where Bush is widely thought to have performed very poorly. True, but Kerry committed a key blunder in that debate with his remark that U.S. action in the world had to pass a “global test.” That was a gaffe that festered as the days went on and came back to haunt Kerry. Likewise last night, Biden’s behavior will fester for a while (watch for how the comics treat it the next few days), and moreover, his early statement that they had bad intelligence about events in Benghazi (throwing U.S. intelligence under the bus, as Steve Hayes rightly puts it) is likely to unravel.