By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
We’ve accepted over the recent decades that the word partisanship is a bad word—something meant to convey the maddening gridlock and abject dysfunction of Washington. The term has been kicked around so abusively since the end of the Reagan era it takes on the mien of a near curse word, like vice president Joe Biden’s re-introduction of malarkey into the American lexicon.
But partisanship—like ideological labels and political lineage—sometimes helps voters understand differences and find clarification. Last night in Danville, Kentucky we had 90 minutes of opportunity to watch partisanship at its best. Well, sort of.
For over a week it had been no secret to anyone but the comatose that Joe Biden’s main job in the vice presidential debate was to throw the punches that his boss failed to deploy in Denver. Biden, already known to be a reliably uncompromising pit bull, had the extended mission of taking the sting out of a week of bad political news for Democrats. We fully expected to see a Biden suited for battle.
On the flip side, that Congressman Paul Ryan would be ready for the stage was never really in question—though his youthful looks make him seem deceptively green, he is widely understood to be a serious thinker and a formidable tactician, and one of the most effective legislators in Congress. Ryan was also expected to show up ready for a fight. Barring a major gaffe or pratfall, the only real question was who would land the hardest punches when these two political advocates met on the stage.
The verdict? Victory is in the eye of the partisans.
On substance, it was about as close to a draw as these debates can be while still being easily labeled with descriptions ranging from “freewheeling” to “spirited.” Within seconds of the debate’s conclusion, the Obama campaign’s top surrogates were eager to declare victory, just as the overjoyed Romney-Ryan spin doctors were announcing that Ryan had won decisively. When both sides claim the battle went their way, we call it a tie.
Why the divergence in opinion? Because this debate had little to do with the ever-elusive undecided voter—that quasi-mythical creature seen haunting the backstage focus group rooms of CNN and ABC News. This debate was about the partisans. Or, more specifically, the energy level of those who have largely made up their minds.
No one truly makes their choice at the ballot box based on the second name on the ticket. This is why—from the days of Spiro Agnew to Dan Quayle, from Dick Cheney to Sarah Palin—elections are decided by the name in the top slot. Few Republicans voted for (or against) Gerald Ford because of his choice of Bob Dole, just as few Democrats voted for Jimmy Carter because of the name Walter Mondale.
Nevertheless, last night’s match-up between Biden and Ryan seemed to loom large in everyone’s mind—thanks in large part to the stunning shift in the narrative after Mitt Romney’s sterling performance last week in Denver, and, by extension, President Obama’s now famously subdued and evasive handling of his first outing against the former governor. With the possible exception of the Biden-Palin debate of 2008, no other VP forum has drawn this much attention from the media.
Though the vast majority of anchors, reporters and analysts rated it a draw on points and substance (discounting the predisposed tilts of MSNBC and Fox News), there was—however—a subplot which nearly overtook the larger contest: Biden, primed and ready for blood after seven days of an ascending GOP ticket, was a little too hot for television. Somewhere Marshall McLuhan, rest in peace, was squirming in his grave.
In a performance (on the left side of the split screen) that would have made Jim Carrey jealous, Biden alternated between a scenery-chewing madman and a comic playground bully. It was like watching Jonathan Winters on steroids, or Mike Myers in the body of Mike Tyson. Biden took his crucial assignment—that of making up for the lost opportunities of the president—to its most absurd conclusion, injecting a more-or-less continuous stream of guffaws, titters, snorts, hand jabs, eye-rolls and shocked facial tics, not to mention what some analysts said were at least 80 separate interruptions to Paul Ryan’s words.
For his part, Ryan remained patient and relatively unfazed by the unleashed and occasionally unhinged Biden, firing off a rejoinder to Biden’s rudeness only once when he acknowledged the great stress that the Obama-Biden campaign must be under. Biden laughed off this bit of impertinence. Many Democrats later shrugged aside Biden’s over-the-top antics as just hardball politics at their best. Some Republicans good-naturedly suggested that Biden was a being a clown and a buffoon. A few seasoned journalists and analysts, David Gergen and Gloria Borger among them, offered that Biden’s acting out was, at the least, nothing less than unseemly, if not downright unsportsmanlike.
“On style,” said CNN analyst Gergen afterward, “I think that Paul Ryan won the debate. The Biden dismissive laughs, the interruptions, the sort of shouting. I think that Ryan was the calmer and frankly more presidential of the two.”
Still, depending on your view, Biden offered either comic distraction or unrelenting challenge to Paul Ryan’s focused and steady delivery.
On substance these two candidates were far less conciliatory than what we saw during last week’s presidential debate in Denver. Rarely has a single stage been shared by candidates of such divergent political positions, a polarity which made the event less a debate than a rallying point for diehards of the left and the right—Biden the dedicated Old School liberal and champion of the downtrodden, Ryan the credentialed fiscal hawk and Movement conservative. It was clear within the first few minutes that neither was interested in converting the centrists; they were instead seeking to energize the partisans.
Both candidates held their own on their principles and talking points. Biden proved particularly effective at battling back the recent narrative of an Obama administration unable to offer large scale solutions for a stagnant economy and anemic jobs growth, turning each of Ryan’s torpedoes around and essentially blaming the previous Republican administration. Ryan was surprisingly solid on foreign affairs, defense spending and all matters related to the Middle East, waving aside Biden’s stage antics to deliver a balanced and thorough assessment of the danger zones of Iran, Libya, Syria and Israel. On the contentious military issues effecting Afghanistan, Ryan again proved his mettle with an incisive, well-reasoned analysis.
But the most raucous exchange came during the discussions of Medicare and Social Security, as well as government spending and deficits. In this, an even clearer distinction could be seen between Ryan, the fiscal conservative, and Biden the liberal with an eye for red ink. The candidates were talking past each other, locked in their respective roles on opposite sides of an age old fiscal divide with Ryan in the role of the Reaganesque budget cutter and Biden in the role of the liberal protector of social services.
There were no major mistakes, no major misfires, and no gaffes, though Ryan managed to produce the best laugh line of the night by reminding the pratfall-prone Biden—in the context of Romney’s unfortunate 47% remark—that not everyone at all times chooses the best words for the occasion. Biden’s use of the word malarkey early in the debate sent the Twitter and Facebook universes aflutter with activity, the old Irish term perhaps too musty for many of the younger viewers.
Moderator Martha Raddatz handled the management of the debate as well as could be expected in such a spirited exchange, moving the candidates smartly and quickly from one topic to the next just when the arguments seemed to reach the point of strain. A few journalists went as far as to suggest that it was Raddatz who was the winner, but there was also the suggestion that Raddatz—in contrast to Jim Lehrer’s fair-to-middling handling of last week’s debate—acted as a sort of third debater, injecting her own perspective a little too heavily into each exchange and segment.
In the end the surrogates for both sides claimed decisive victory—a sure sign that the debate was an even draw, and an obvious clues that this was a performance designed to generate enthusiasm from within the sparring camps, as opposed to outreach to the much-discussed, much misunderstood undecided voter.