In political debates, winning is a matter of form and optics. It's not what a win is, but how it looks. There is no real definition of a debate win. And since many media heads are either too squeamish or too cynical to offer their honest assessment of who won last Thursday night's vice presidential debate, one thing was for certain: most knew who dominated.
This has raised the stakes for President Obama. Post-Danville, problems continue to plague the incumbent. The celebratory all-drinks-on-me mood is short-lived as the second presidential debate approaches with Obama showing few signs, yet, of being able to fill the ginormous and brazenly political shoes of Joe Biden.
Experts would probably advise that the president should have debate prepped all weekend with his vice president -- something many strategists argue should have happened a long time ago. But, therein lies a growing issue for the president. Denver posed a question beginning to nag numerous voters waiting for November 6th: "If this president constantly needs old White guys from the 20th century to capably explain and articulate his own achievements, why should I vote for him?"
By this time, most voters should have already made their mind up. But, for some reason, the almost mythological "undecided" is vexing many an observer. A gregarious and steely-faced Biden can't help him with that. It's something he's going to have to do all on his own.
With stakes high for Team Obama, the situation went back to being complex for opposing Team Romney which placed high hopes in veep nominee Paul Ryan. Republicans hoped that Ryan, the celebrated conservative "whiz kid" from Wisconsin, would prevent Democrats from any opportunity at gaining lost ground from a previous week that left progressives in near ruin.
That obviously didn't happen.
The problem is that if you were to ask any casual observer about the debate, they couldn't tell you what Ryan said. But, they could wax on and laugh for hours about what Joe Biden said and what he did. Like a night at the Apollo in a parallel universe, Biden performed. He quickly became the YouTube sensation the Democratic base sought for over a week. From incessant grinning to dramatic sighs, from dismissive head-shakes to growly guffaws, Biden was the Democratic version of Clint Eastwood's empty chair act -- just much more articulate and undoubtedly lethal.
That was the point. We can talk all day about how much Biden's gleaming white teeth may have looked to struggling middle-class voters who wanted an honest kitchen table discussion. But, the fact is that anyone watching the debate was looking for blood in the water, anyway.
And any day the media cycle talks less about President Obama's first debate performance is a good day for the White House. A string of days and late night stand-up about Biden offers the Obama campaign the reprieve it needs for re-calibration by the time their boss is on stage for a second meeting with Mitt Romney. The reason why President Obama picked Biden as a running mate suddenly crystallizes. He is not only the perfect "keep it real" candid No. 2 who tells-it-like-it-is during crucial White House huddles. He is also the perfect weapon of mass distraction, a very seasoned veteran and Washington Jedi who masterfully gives enemies the impression of a senile gaffer while ultimately plotting deadly political comebacks and public deliveries.
Hence, the narrative since last week was no longer what President Obama did not do in Denver. It's all about what Biden did manage to do in Danville.
Multiple problems now loom for the Romney/Ryan ticket. It will be difficult to establish any solid memorable Ryan one-liners that can capture the national conversation from now until the second presidential debate. The other problem for Republicans is that Democrats -- who were for the most part completely deflated since Denver -- are now re-discovering lost enthusiasm to match Republican resurgence.
By arriving to Centre College with what amounted to an ass-whipping-ready baseball bat, Biden also smashed through Ryan's shield of intellectual invincibility. This was inevitable, but Biden's technique of cage-matching mixed martial arts exposed it. Weeks leading up to the debate found Ryan barely making it through television interviews once grilled for details on his budget, tax cuts and Medicare. There were signs that the House Budget Committee Chairman despised being challenged. At some point, this would catch up with him. Post-debate, Ryan's reputation on Capitol Hill as untouchable numbers-crunching Wizard of Oz is cracking. With Biden putting his senior card on blast, there were moments where Ryan looked young and out-leagued. There were few opportunities for the Congressman to blend snarky sound bites with high level wonk as Biden continually rattled him in a flurry of nearly flawless surgical cuts.
In effect, the kid from Wisconsin was old-schooled, a classic yard rule to the knuckles, Catholic to Catholic. There was a not-so-gentle hazing quality to it, a long awaited "Welcome to Washington, son" subtlety that was not lost on Ryan as he repeatedly hydrated throughout the entire 90-minutes. It was as if Ryan had just been elected to Congress, as if he hadn't been in Washington for nearly two decades. Biden seemed comfortable and victorious by whatever standard he set, casting for a remake of A Few Good Men, like Jack Nicholson in service browns scolding Tom Cruise about how much he "can't handle the truth."
That said, Ryan did manage to slip in a personal jab at Biden, son of Scranton, PA, boldly remarking that the unemployment rate in the vice president's hometown is now two points more than it was on Inauguration Day. Joe, irritated but unfazed, seemed to recover. But, it hurt, particularly as it gets replayed on the media game tape.
It's a powerful line that fits like Legos into a persistent and effective mantra about "jobs, jobs, jobs" that Team Romney keeps steam-rolling despite better unemployment numbers last month. Unanswered, it could become Romney/Ryan's most effective message into November should voters doubt the incumbent's ability to keep jobless numbers dropping to where they were four years ago. And while Team Romney eagerly spats with Team Obama over Medicare minutiae and an unpopular health care reform law, average voters want simple-speak on what either candidate is going to do about job growth. There was already a bout-of-the-ages bit of anticipation and hype leading up to the vice presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky.
However, few knew that it would be as good and entertaining as it got. There was much riding on Joe Biden essentially being "Uncle Joe." The president has big shoes to fill, with much riding on his ability to shed the urge to stay above the petty fray that is Washington politics. But, he is cut from the Chicago cloth and at some point voters should expect it to kick in.