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Veep Debate Post-Mortem: What the Pundits Missed

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A few lingering thoughts about the vice presidential debate...

Although I am a veteran debate observer, I often have difficulty discerning a clear victor when I watch these programs. Not this time. Joe Biden's performance may have been over-exuberant, even borderline obnoxious, but in two key ways Biden won this debate hands-down.

First, from the opening moments Biden achieved what every television debater strives to achieve: he grabbed the starring role for himself and reduced the other guy to second banana. On Thursday night the vice president of the United States didn't just conquer the screen, he laid waste to it.

Second, Biden approached the debate with a clear strategy, a strategy that he succeeded in pulling off. By raising the issues that Barack Obama failed to raise in the first debate, Biden laid out a substantive case for the Democrats. Like a bad-ass prosecuting attorney, he challenged his opponent on point after point, keeping Paul Ryan -- and, by extension, Mitt Romney -- on defense for pretty much the entire debate. Furthermore, and of no small importance, Biden reset the table for the upcoming town hall between the top-of-the-ticket principals.

So why were the pundits so reluctant to call Joe Biden the winner of this debate? To many in Washington's political/media elite, Biden's aggressive/dismissive attitude toward Ryan seemed undignified and therefore out of bounds. The personal nature of Biden's criticism offended the pearl clutchers of our nation's capital, who fetishize bipartisanship and cluck at behavior they deem excessively sharp-elbowed.

If you believe Dick Cheney, Biden gave "the most emotionally unstable debate performance in modern American politics." Well, Cheney is half-right: right about the emotional, wrong about the unstable. Because Biden knew exactly what he was doing on that stage. Was he over the top? Absolutely. But his operatic delivery was calibrated to achieve a particular response -- and for the most part Biden drew the response he had been seeking.

It bears mention that this is more or less the same maneuver that Romney pulled off in his opening match with Obama, albeit through vastly different means. Romney dominated by seizing control of the agenda and the mechanics of his debate, capitalizing on the president's unanticipated passivity. Biden dominated by sucking up so much oxygen that his opponent was left gasping for air -- or, more accurately, water.

It appears that Beltway pundits felt they needed to grade Ryan on the curve, given his short history on the national stage. That's fine. Ryan and Biden did not step into the arena as equals, so it is appropriate to consider that disparity when passing judgment. But I suspect there's another reason the Washington press did not want to be too anti-Ryan: Declaring him a loser would have interfered with their preferred narrative of Paul Ryan as rising star.

In many ways Ryan's performance was admirable -- he isn't Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin -- and no doubt he'll have plenty of future opportunities to refine his art. For the moment, however, Ryan remains more of a supporting player than a leading man. He lost the visual debate with Biden not just because Biden hogged the lens, but also because of innate challenges the younger man faces as a television performer. For starters, Ryan has the wide-eyed, youthful face of an anime character. The debate's relentless two-shots showed Ryan looking like a puppy whose master was scolding him for leaving a mess on the floor. And Ryan suffers from a high-pitched, nasal voice that undermines his efforts to sound authoritative. A good vocal coach would be a smart investment.

Furthermore, it did not help Ryan that on the day of the debate Time magazine released from its vault a series of photos showing the congressman working out at the gym. As the visual appetizer served just before the debate entrée, these images did Ryan no favors. The pictures reinforced Ryan's immaturity -- exactly the wrong message that he needed to convey at that moment.

Ryan lost the debate at least in part by looking and sounding as if he were running for student council. My reaction as I watched was that it felt like a father and son arguing at the dinner table -- which may have been the effect Biden intended. Remember Ronald Reagan's comeback quip to Walter Mondale in the second 1984 debate: "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience..."? Biden took just the opposite approach.

Beyond the visual realm, Ryan showed evidence of being a poor listener, which is a major debate no-no. We saw this at the end of the program, when moderator Martha Raddatz cited a conversation she had had with an American soldier dismayed by the negativity of the presidential campaign. What would you say to him? Raddatz asked the candidates. And are you ever embarrassed by the tone?

Biden answered first, not very memorably. When Ryan's turn came, after the obligatory "thank you for your service" and "we won't impose military cuts," the candidate proceeded to his main point: "And then I would say, you have a president who ran for president four years ago promising hope and change, who has now turned his campaign into attack, blame and defame." For another 400 words, Ryan's anti-Obama peroration continued. The sheer cluelessness of this was stunning. Had Ryan even heard the soldier's question?

But enough about Paul Ryan -- in the final analysis, this was Joe Biden's debate. Throughout his 90 minutes upon the stage the vice president reminded America that he is a larger than life character, a throwback to a time when, for better or for worse, picturesque politicians loomed over our electoral landscape.

Yet Biden's triumph was only partly about personality. It also had to do with strategy. This was the second veep debate in a row in which Biden has successfully executed his mission, delivering a pair of performances as different as night and day. This ability to modulate himself to suit the occasion is an achievement that got lost in the post-debate analysis, overshadowed by all the belly laughs and pearly whites and overlapping dialogue.

This column is cross-posted on the Presidential Debate Blog.

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