The expectations were set incredibly low for Joe Biden. As Ryan would put it to him during the debate, “Sometimes words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” eliciting laughter from the gallery. As a man who wouldn’t be taken seriously entering this debate, he couldn’t possibly be more buffoonish. So why not go ballistic and interrupt Ryan at every turn?
The move paid off. The only times Ryan got to enjoy uninterrupted time to make his pitch to the American people were during his opening and closing statements. Every other moment was shared with Biden or the moderator, Martha Radditz.
Ryan’s strength comes from his knowledge of the math and the numbers. He needed to establish with the American people that he was a competent, thoughtful aspiring vice presidential candidate who could work across the aisle. Just a month ago, he was being protrayed as a right-wing radical with ideas too crazy for independents. That’s why his pitch was so focused on how he would focus on working with Democrats to reach a solution on the budget or on foreign policy, contrasting that to the experience of Obama’s first term.
While David Freddoso argues that Biden needed to reinvigorate the base to reassure them that Obama’s lousy first debate performance was not representative of the campaign’s energy level, Biden also needed to appeal to independents and undermine Ryan’s own working class credentials. Laughing at Ryan was supposed to make him look silly, unqualified, unpresidential. Instead, Biden looked like an impatient bully, unconfident in his own record and desperate to change the subject.
One place this most stood out was in Biden’s carping about how it was somehow novel for a Republican to call for bipartisanship. The past Republican Congresses were nowhere close to bipartisan in their approach, he argued. But in political years, that was long past history. Yes, Joe, you might have disliked how Republicans in Congress behaved under George W. Bush. But who cares?
Biden might have come closer to resonating with viewers if he’d allowed his points to stick. His arguments about how We Are All The 47 Percent might have stuck (if only those in the 47 percent would admit to themselves that’s who they are!). But instead, his over-the-top interruptions took the stage. Most mainstream reporters on Twitter I noticed caught it and repudiated it to some degree.
In other words, Biden had a choice: Play the elder statesman who knows better, or the smart alec who wants to put the upstart kid in his place. Doing both meant being the elder statesmen who condescended to his opponent, and it won’t play well.
After all: The independents, and not the base, are the ones who matter.
PS. I have another theory about why Biden was smiling so much: