Biden won the vice presidential debate because he was tactically cannier, and that has stopped the Romney campaign debate train.
There are two ways of winning a political debate: on the night, and in its wake. Biden has won both. The first he won on points by good debating tactics. The second he won by not tripping up, by showing passion, and by not letting Ryan get any sort of decent shots away.
It was a good debate. Vigorous, at time detailed, argumentative, polemical, personal, and at least once, feisty.
Tactically Biden was superior. He treated Ryan as an earnest but shallow newbie. While Ryan spoke he shook his head in disagreement, grinned, laughed, and talked over him. In one great example, Ryan was about 30 seconds into what was sounding like a very successful answer to a question about the unemployment, including in Biden’s home town. Biden cut across him with an unsophisticated aggressive one-liner about Ryan reading the statistics wrong. Ryan froze to recollect his thoughts. But the moment was gone. The emotive power of a prepared punch was drained.
I think Biden’s strategy was to goad Ryan, to lead him into deep waters of fury. But Ryan kept his cool, and kept to his plan to incisively tear apart Obama’s record.
It started earnestly. Biden concerned himself with detailed destruction of Ryan’s policies. This start seemed to give him the confidence to over-power Ryan personally and even go off-script. But never did he get cocky.
Much was made prior to the debate about Biden’s tendency to make gaffes. Even Ryan tried to allude to it during the debate. But Biden did not make one error, even when he left his script.
This illustrates the point I made about Obama’s performance against Romney last week. The main thing to rehearse for is style; passion and comfort. If you rehearse for answers rather than performance you risk being overwhelmed and unconvincing.
Make no mistake, Ryan was good. Where Romney was great on what he would do (or rather what he would not do), Ryan was good on what was wrong with the Obama Presidency. He picked apart the failed promises, listed anecdotes of troubled Americans, and gave his own personal testimony.
Ryan’s weakness was describing his own plans. He was okay on Medicare – by identifying all the small irregularities of the Obama health plan. He was not good at all on identifying what was different about international issues, and nowhere near convincing on what constituted his economic prescription.
Biden can be accused of unfairly disrupting Ryan. It wasn’t a pleasant tactic. But this is a debate, and all rhetorical and physical tactics are available. Ryan had plenty of counter tactics at his disposal. His trouble is that he lacked the experience to break from his rehearsal and his strategy, to use them.
The moderator, Martha Raddatz, can be commended. She kept the debate flowing, primarily because her questions were so thoughtful, and frankly, so loaded. The candidates had to work hard to construct good answers. Only once did she appear unbalanced, teaming up with Biden to press home demands on Ryan for policy detail.
The starkest question was about the role of their Catholic faith in their political attitude to abortion. Ryan is pro life in all but exceptional cases. Biden is pro life, but says he can’t force this position on other people with other beliefs. There wasn’t much need for debate on this matter. The positions were clear and very different.
Raddatz’s final question, about what sort of man they were, was woolly, but it served to illuminate something about the candidates. Ryan ignored the question and gave a scripted answer about how terrible the Obama administration had been. Biden listened to the question and gave it a decent answer; about his record, his fairness and his honesty. Despite the countless times the candidates used their personal lives to illustrate a point, it was the first time we got a real insight: that Biden’s humanity is closer to the political surface than Ryan’s.