DANVILLE, Ky. — In his worst moments, after the gaffes that were truly gaffes and not just fodder for excitable cable news shows, even Joe Biden’s biggest fans inside the White House and at campaign headquarters in Chicago understood the need to pull the vice president off the front lines.
But after the president’s uninspired performance in the first presidential debate, the campaign saw a clear need — “Joe just needs to be Joe,” as President Obama put it Wednesday, on the eve of Thursday night’s vice presidential showdown.
“Malarkey.” “Stuff.” The giggles. The interruptions. Biden, to borrow from a phrase that got him in trouble not too long ago, was unchained.
The vice president began with a somber reflection on the loss of life of American personnel in Libya, and a determined defense of the president’s record as commander in chief, contrasting him with Republican Mitt Romney.
When Paul D. Ryan answered back with a point-by-point rebuttal, Biden stood his ground.
“With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said, using a favorite term of his, but one that never made an appearance in his debate with Sarah Palin four years ago.
“Why is that so?” moderator Martha Raddatz responded. “Because not a single thing he said is accurate,” Biden said.
It was precisely the counterpunch Democrats were begging for from Obama in Denver eight nights ago, and there were plenty more to come.
When the subject turned to the economy, Biden invoked his Pennsylvania roots. He was in full Scranton mode as he took aim at Romney’s personal finances, and his “47%” remark.
“These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Gov. Romney pays in his federal income tax,” he said. “I’ve had it up to here with this notion that 47%, it's about time they take some responsibility here. And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class: We're going to level the playing field.”
When Ryan criticized the stimulus program — the implementation of which Biden oversaw — he answered by noting that Ryan didn’t seem to think the program intended to jump-start the economy was a bad idea when he wrote the administration a letter seeking stimulus funds for his congressional district.
“We advocated for constituents who were applying for grants,” Ryan said.
Biden, chuckling, said sarcastically: “I love that. I love that. This is such a bad program, and he writes me a letter.”
Throwing out the traditional playbook, campaign aides were not lowering expectations for Biden ahead of the debate. If anything they raised them, telegraphing to all who would listen that the vice president would be ready to come out fighting.
Some of that was to send a message to anxious supporters who feared the man at the top of the ticket had squandered the momentum he had built coming out of the Democratic National Convention in September. But there was also a genuine belief that a dose of Biden was precisely what the campaign needed.
The vice president “does not suffer from performance anxiety,” an aide said recently.
When White House and campaign aides are asked about the occasional Biden freelancing, they answer that voters, specifically middle- and lower-class voters, appreciate his authenticity. The cool, professorial Obama and the avuncular “Middle Class Joe” have made for an unlikely but successful pairing, they say, and have formed — to their own surprise — a genuine partnership and friendship.
But after what was deemed a successful 2012 campaign debut — delivering a series of framing speeches on key issues — Biden had a significant misstep. On an episode of “Meet The Press” that aired the day after Obama formally kicked off his reelection bid, Biden declared his support for same-sex marriage, something his boss ostensibly was still wrestling with.
He has not done a major national interview since. And it was former President Clinton, not Biden, who delivered the powerful convention speech the night before Obama’s.
The vice presidential debate, though, was one spotlight moment that remained. And while aides say Biden always planned to go on offense, the importance of the debate grew after Obama’s lackluster performance in Denver.
As with all things Biden, though, there was a risk in overplaying his hand. Perhaps sensing he was on a roll, Biden on Thursday night seemed to take greater joy in interrupting his counterpart more and more. His laughter began driving discussion on social media. Republicans declared him “unhinged.”
And eventually Ryan found an answer to it.
“Mr. Vice President, I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground. But I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other,” Ryan said.