Joe Biden had both low expectations and a clear purpose when he entered the vice presidential debate. He needed to beat Paul Ryan in order to slow the momentum Romney's campaign has gotten from Obama's weak performance in the first presidential debate. Biden delivered for his president, winning a debate he was widely expected to lose by virtue of an aggressive style that kept Paul Ryan on the defensive and allowed Biden to dominate their exchanges.
Biden did what Obama failed to do in Denver, succinctly explain how the administration had succeeded on both domestic and foreign policy and then contrast those successes with the failures of how a Romney administration would act. To hear Joe Biden explain it, the choice in the upcoming election is a simple one; Obama got America out of Iraq and is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2014, he saved the auto industry and wants middle class families to be able to stay in their homes if the mortgage is underwater, while Romney wants to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan forever, wants Detroit to go bankrupt, and doesn't care if families get thrown out of their homes because he has no compassion for 47 percent of Americans. If Obama had been able to make the case for his reelection as forcibly as Biden had, the polls would still have the president with a lead outside the margin of error.
Biden was undoubtedly aggressive and even disrespectful to his opponent, frequently interrupting and essentially accusing Ryan of being a liar before even ten minutes had elapsed. At many points in the debate, Biden went so far as to make exaggerated, almost grotesque, facial gestures to signal disgust at what Ryan was saying. Much of the media criticism of Biden's debate performance has been targeted at his acrimonious style, but it served its purpose. Whenever Paul Ryan would begin to win an exchange, Biden would break the flow of his argument with an interruption that forced Ryan to veer off course. For example, when Ryan was explaining that the American embassy in Libya had worse security and that the Obama administration ignored requests from the ambassador to have additional security, Biden reminded the audience that Ryan's budget included cuts to embassy security. That didn't make Ryan's criticism any less valid but it certainly blunted its effect to a viewer, especially an undecided voter without much information about public affairs. Even if Biden appeared mean at times, it is much better in debates to appear mean than to appear weak or wrong. This is especially true in vice presidential debates, since the voters find personal popularity as far less important in a vice president than in a president.
Ryan could have used some of Biden's hard-charging style. When Biden spoke as an authority on foreign affairs, Ryan would have been well served to remind the audience of Biden's support for the bizarre plan of partitioning Iraq into three different countries and then securing the newly drawn borders with American soldiers. When Biden cited his personal connection and commitment to Medicare, Ryan could have interrupted with "If you're so committed to it why'd you cut $716 billion from seniors in order to pay for Obamacare?" Biden would have protested that the cuts were merely cost savings but it would have had the same effect that Biden's interruption did -- regain momentum in the debate and knock the opponent off message. Instead, Ryan -- stilted -- stayed on script, using hackneyed lines like "problems are growing abroad but jobs aren't growing here at home" and starting his closing statement by thanking Joe Biden for the "honor of engaging in this critical debate," a thank you at odds with the bitter back-and-forth of the evening.
Unlike John Edwards' evisceration by Dick Cheney in 2004, Ryan's defeat won't raise any questions about whether he is capable of being president. He passed the threshold of acceptability for vice presidents, presenting himself as a serious and credible politician who could assume office if Romney dies. Ryan avoided the bête noire of debaters, the gaffe that gets played over and over again and dominates the news cycle for days. Only if Ryan had made this type of gaffe, such as saying something totally off-message about Medicare reform, would this debate have major negative ramifications for the Romney ticket.
Romney/Ryan won't lose any voters from the vice presidential debate, but their momentum has been slowed down and Obama enters the next debate needing to do well, but not with the narrative of a campaign in free-fall like there would have been if Biden had been defeated. Although Obama's demeanor is a poor fit for imitating the aggressive performance of his vice president, he would be wise to copy the substance, if not the style, of Biden's performance.