The Wingmen Take Center Stage

While the influence and significance of Vice Presidential debates has been questioned, it would be fair to say that tonight’s debate was fairly important.  Vice President Biden was faced with the task of reinvigorating the Obama campaign after last week’s debate, while Representative Ryan needed to prove himself as a qualified candidate.  To these ends, both candidates had different strategies and ways of conducting themselves.

The consensus has been that last week’s debate was a pretty big loss for President Obama and his campaign.  Vice President Biden and campaign staffers definitely had this in mind as they worked on debate prep.  The biggest objective Biden needed to accomplish was to make up for lost ground in last week’s debate.  He needed to defend the President’s record and be more aggressive in the debate than the President was.  He also needed to challenge the narrative of the Romney-Ryan campaign.  The Vice President accomplished all of these goals.  He was definitely more aggressive than the President was last week, making more offensive arguments and even going so far as to interrupt Representative Ryan several times.  He also defended the administration on Medicare, the stimulus plan, job creation, economic growth, and foreign policy actions.  Another important line Biden pursued was challenging the Romney-Ryan campaign record.  He riffed on some of the flip-flopping that the campaign has been accused of.  He also waxed poetic on Governor Romney’s “47%” comments, something that Obama was criticized for not doing.  Overall, Biden set the stage for Obama to be more aggressive in Tuesday’s debate.

While Ryan has acquired debate experience during his 14 years in Congress, this was his first time on the stage in the national spotlight.  His biggest goal was to prove that he was fit for the job.  I believe that he did that.  He handled himself very well and had clear, well explained arguments.  He avoided any major gaffes or missteps and showed Americans that he was ready for the job.  He also needed to stick to the consistent message the Governor Romney presented in last week’s debate and he did just that.  Since last week’s debate was focused on domestic issues, this was the first time the Romney-Ryan campaign got to speak about foreign policy issues.  Ryan did a solid job of outlining the foreign policy stance of his campaign. In fact, I think Ryan did a better job answering the Syria and Iran questions than Biden.  Basically, Ryan’s job was to add fuel to the fire of the reinvigorated Romney campaign and he did just that.

Since the candidates had different goals, there were some marked differences in how they handled themselves.  Like I said before, Biden was much more aggressive that Obama.  He put Ryan on the defense more than Obama ever put Romney on the defense, especially on Medicare and tax policy.  He also was much quicker than Obama in making specific arguments and using “facts” and citations (I use the word facts cautiously because, as always, both candidates need to undergo aggressive fact-checking.)  The Vice President was also much quicker and clearer than the President.  His answers were much more coherent.  The biggest issue for Biden could be the smirking.  On several occasions he had a wide grin on his face and even went so far as to laugh at Ryan’s arguments.  His goal was to appear more confident and discredit the arguments Ryan was making.  It’s not unusual for debaters to do this to perceptually try to discredit an opponent’s argument.  However, it should be done cautiously to avoid appearing overconfident, rude, or condescending.  The base will of course enjoy Biden’s smirk.  It will be perceived as a sign of confidence that the President never presented last week.  Conservatives will criticize it as dismissive and condescending.  Biden pushed the line between confident and condescending, so it will be interesting to see if that has any impact on undecided voters.

Ryan was very respectful and kept his cool.  Biden was hoping to throw him off by interrupting him, but Ryan handled it better that Biden had probably hoped.  It is also worth noting that the two candidates were more cordial to each other than Obama and Romney.  This could be attributed to the fact that both candidates served in Congress together at the same time.  Ryan also did a good job of putting Biden on the defensive on foreign policy issues.  While he didn’t have the same theatrics as Biden, Ryan was collected and confident.

On a more general note, this debate was much funnier than the first.  The two candidates were not afraid to riff on each other.  Biden made a comment about the Romney campaign maybe not being the most consistent and Ryan responded with a line of his own about Obama’s disappointing performance in the first debate.  I appreciate the little jabs.  They certainly liven up what could otherwise be a pretty boring debate.

The bottom line is that both candidates did their job in this debate.  Ryan delivered a confident performance that solidified his place on the national stage.  Biden eased the wounds of the President’s performance last week.  Overall, this debate was clearer, better structured, better moderated, and more entertaining than last week.

The next debate is Tuesday, October 16.  The presidential debate will be a town meeting format covering both domestic and foreign policy.

Additionally, if you missed a debate or would like to rewatch a debate this website has both full length videos and transcripts.

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4 responses to “The Wingmen Take Center Stage

  1. I believe this debate was a draw on substance, but Congressman Ryan won on style points. The condescending body language that you mention exhibited by the Vice President was disappointing to see and certainly worked to his discredit.

    • This seems like a silly way to frame an evaluation of any public debate, particularly a Vice Presidential debate. The format and staging of debates between folks running for public office makes any attempt to thoroughly evaluate substance an exercise in the absurd. It’s not a platform conducive to any kind of a real policy debate. Speaking times are so brief, and there seems to be a willful lack of warrant to most claims.

      A better way to evaluate these little sideshows is in terms of posturing and role-playing. The polling data from the last week largely speaks to base energy. A popular (and seemingly well warranted) narrative is that Obama’s passivity and Romney’s assertiveness served to energize an otherwise disengaged Republican base, while disinteresting similarly lethargic Democratic voters in the election. Additionally, given the data which generally indicates that VP debates have minimal impact on the opinion of undecided voters and how that voting group influences election probabilities, that pretty clearly defines Biden’s role, and how it ought to be evaluated. Biden’s job is to engage the Democratic base, and Ryan’s is to lend truth to the narrative that he’s professorial and “wonky”.

      It seems to me that Biden did his part, playing the strong-arming political operative that whips people into shape while Obama plays aloof and preserves a “presidential” image. Ryan, it seems, disappointed a bit. He seemed regularly on the defensive about the content of his policies, and generally seemed out of depth in terms of his ability to engage and outwit someone who’s spent almost as much time in the Senate as Ryan’s been alive.

      Evaluative framing is important, and we should get beyond the ludicrous notion that these debates are about substance. And, FWIW, what sliver of substantive evaluation we ought to do seems to have played out well for Biden. He was particularly compelling on Iran.

  2. well done blog…again. Very articulate and thorough. I love the insight and hope more students engage in conversation around these topics!

  3. In reply to an above comment I have to disagree and say that VP Biden performed poorly. A person can appear confident, powerful and professional without coming off as rude, arrogant and juvenile, which is how I perceived VP Biden. I am a veteran so I have been in the presence of excellence and outstanding leaders. VP Biden held none of those qualities that the great men and women in uniform that I know possess. This is an important public figure for our country, an image that represents us before other nations and he acted very unprofessional. There are ways to get a message across and disagree without laughing, showing distracting body language and interrupting. While Rep. Ryan appeared passive he also looked like a professional leader. He could have acknowledged VP Biden’s actions but instead he stayed on path and delivered his message in calm and collective manner. We need to ask ourselves, what do we want in a leader or in this case VP?

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