Thoughts on the vice-presidential debate

Joe Biden was always going to be an attack dog tonight. After the presidential debate, the Democrats needed him aggressively to promote their post-debate excuse that Romney is all smoke and mirrors. Moreover, Biden is well suited for the attack dog role.

I didn’t expect, however, that Biden’s demeanor would be so off-putting. The ridiculous toothy smile didn’t come as a shock. But the smirking, mocking, laughter, constant interruptions of Paul Ryan, and cranky interaction with moderator Martha Raddatz, whom he chided at one point for allegedly misstating the facts, did.

My sense is that Biden’s demeanor cost him the debate. Substantively, both candidates did pretty well. Ryan got a boost when Raddatz began the debate with a question about Libya. Biden was poised to play offense, but had to play defense on this issue, in the face of a very effective line of attack by Ryan.

Thereafter, Biden was the aggressor. Ryan did reasonably well in countering most of Biden’s attacks, and he landed a few good punches of his own. But Biden was the dominant personality.

Normally, a close substantive debate, like a close boxing match, goes to the aggressor. But when the aggressor behaves insufferably, I think it works the other way around.

I watched the debate with my wife, who is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. She was appalled by Biden. A few times, she even told his TV image to shut up and let Ryan speak. I can’t ever remember my wife talking to the TV before – that’s my role in our house.

It wasn’t just Biden’s rudeness that my wife found off-putting. As the debate wore on, and Biden’s toothy grin was replaced by an ominous scowl, my wife said he was making her feel very nervous. Later, I saw that Ann Althouse had the same reaction. Biden, she said, “created this disturbing atmosphere of anxiety” (the emphasis is Althouse’s).

Did other independent voters, especially females, share this reaction? I don’t know. But I do know how badly Al Gore’s debate demeanor hurt him in 2000. If anything, Biden outdid Gore in the boorish behavior department. I also know that for a lawyer to behave before a jury as Biden conducted himself before a national audience would risk serious damage to his client.

So did Biden do serious damage to his client, President Obama? Probably not. The vice presidential debates rarely count for much. Biden will have boosted the morale of Democrats disappointed by Obama’s debate performance. But he won’t have impressed independents and undecided females; in fact he will have turned some of them off.

Democrats will hope that voters look beyond Biden’s obnoxiousness and find merit in his various attacks on Romney. But Ryan parried most of those attacks were fairly effectively. In any case, the lasting impression of this debate will likely be the Democratic messenger, not the Democratic message.

Finally, a few words about Martha Raddatz, about whose selection as moderator I was critical. On the whole, I was not impressed with her performance. She allowed Biden repeatedly to interrupt Ryan without allowing Ryan to regain the floor. And she herself interrupted Ryan at times just when he was getting to heart of his response.

I don’t assume that Raddatz conducted the debate this way out of pro-Obama bias. She may have been as taken aback by Biden’s behavior as the rest of us. But given her connection, past and present (through the father of her child who holds high office under Obama), the question of partiality is a legitimate one. That’s why moderators shouldn’t have such connections.

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