Biden and Ryan fight to a draw in vice presidential debate

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (October 11, 2012)

Vice President Joe Biden was all smirks, smiles, laughs, sharp elbows and impolite interruptions in his debate with the No. 2 guy on the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan. It is always a risky tactic to let Joe be Joe, but it seems to have paid off.

After President Obama’s passive, lackluster response to Mitt Romney’s energetic assault during the first presidential debate, demoralized Democrats were praying that Biden would come out swinging at Ryan. They got what they wanted and, as a result, Democrats should be reinvigorated as the closing days of the 2012 campaign tick away. 

Photos: Biden and Ryan square off

That matters because, after weeks of gaffes and goof-ups, Romney finally got Republican blood pumping with his debate performance. There is a good chance that the party that is most motivated to turn out and vote will win the election. Sure, all the speculation in recent days has been about the tiny number of undecided voters in swing states who could push the election one way or another, but the fact is that enthused partisans on both sides could play an even more crucial role by driving the ground game of voter turnout.

Biden’s rude behavior certainly turned off some voters who prefer their politics to be more cordial. CNN wired up a group of undecided voters to dial in their feelings throughout the debate, and they showed little enthusiasm for Biden’s aggressive style. But, when interviewed after the event, these voters split right down the middle when asked whom they would vote for if they had to vote today. Biden’s contentiousness did far less harm than Obama’s politeness.

Ryan put in a good performance that pleased Republicans. Biden kept him from being too good, though. An uncritical voter might be inclined to believe everything Ryan says simply because he says it with such assurance. The vice president’s constant sniping made it impossible for the Wisconsin congressman to make any point without being challenged. If Ryan had not been called out on his smart-sounding but factually dubious assertions, he could easily have come away from the debate looking like a winner in the same way Romney did. That would have been a disaster for the Democrats.

The best performer on the debate stage was not either of the candidates, it was the moderator, Martha Raddatz. Unlike poor old Jim Lehrer who lost control of the presidential debate, Raddatz allowed a lively exchange but stayed in charge by posing intelligent, detailed questions and sharp follow-ups. It shows that it may be better to let a seasoned field reporter run these affairs rather than someone who has spent too many years sitting in an anchorman’s cushy chair.

Biden and Ryan both walked onto the debate stage ready for battle and, after 90 minutes, walked away with most people calling it a draw. But Democrats had the most to lose Thursday night, so a draw is nearly as good as a win. Joe Biden did what he needed to do. Now, President Obama is on the spot to prove he wants a second term badly enough that he will lose a little of his cool and show some fight next Tuesday night.