Vice President Joe Biden took Americans on a one-way trip to Malarkey-ville last night, with a weirdly aggressive debate performance in which, according to one count, he interrupted his Republican rival 86 times. Even many of those who generally approved of what Democrat spinners referred to as Biden's "happy warrior" act expressed concern that the vice president was, to quote CNN's Gloria Borger, "condescending at times" toward Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
Make that "condescending at all times," and you may have a consensus that would include even the debate's liberal moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News. Biden's behavior resembled the hypomanic phase of bipolar disorder, as he grinned incongruously or faked laughter in reaction to Ryan's answers, rudely scoffed at the Republican's policy proposals as "bluster" and "loose talk," and bulldozed past whatever feeble attempts Raddatz made to halt his repeated filibusters.
Arrogant? Overbearing? Angry? If those are your ideal qualities in a vice president, Biden's your man. In the inevitable post-debate panel discussions over who "won" the debate, even conservative discussants generally credited Biden with having accomplished his basic mission, namely to counteract the demoralization among Democrats caused by President Obama's tepid and listless debate performance last week against Mitt Romney. (See "Mitt's Biggest Turnaround Yet," Oct. 4.) Biden's aggressive tactics against Ryan were cheered by the Democratic "base," by which term of course I mean, Chris Matthews.
"A clear victory for Joe Biden, looking at the key issues people care about," Matthews enthused on MSNBC after the debate ended, without bothering to explain how he knows which issues are "key." However, CNN's post-debate "flash" poll showed viewers narrowly favoring Ryan, 48 percent to 44 percent for Biden, and also scored Ryan the more "likeable" of the two candidates, by a 53-43 margin. On Fox News, meanwhile, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was reluctant to award the win to Ryan, saying the youthful House Budget Committee chairman showed "excessive deference" to Biden. Yet Krauthammer also criticized Biden, describing the vice president's manner as "disrespectful." At the conservative Hot Air site, the blogger known as Allahpundit summarized the debate in a headline: "Angry old man yells at Paul Ryan for 90 minutes."
Was the debate, therefore, a win-win? Not exactly. Grant that Biden achieved his goal of halting the panic that set in among Democrats after Romney mopped the floor with Obama in last week's debate. Still, the vice president's hectoring performance Thursday in Danville, Kentucky, wasn't likely to endear him to undecided voters. Meanwhile, what Krauthammer called Ryan's "deference" enabled the Republican to counteract the demonized image of him as a heartless budget-slasher that Democrats would like to exploit. Pleasant and calm, yet firm and clearly well-prepared, Ryan established himself as competent and charmingly human, never losing his cool while Biden lectured and berated him.
The tone of the debate was set early, when Raddatz began by asking Biden whether last month's terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, represented an "intelligence failure." The vice president spoke four sentences about Libya before going off on a tangent, defending Obama's record (and attacking Romney's position) on Afghanistan and on foreign policy generally. Obama "has led with a steady hand and clear vision; Governor Romney, the opposite," Biden said before concluding with a non sequitur: "The last thing we need now is another war."
Ryan pounced: "When you take a look at what has happened just in the last few weeks, they sent the U.N. ambassador out to say that this was because of a protest and a YouTube video. It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack. He went to the U.N., and in his speech at the U.N. he said six times -- he talked about the YouTube video. Look, if we are hit by terrorists, we're going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack. Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him. Shouldn't we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi, a place where we knew that there was an al-Qaida cell with arms? This is becoming more troubling by the day. They first blamed the YouTube video; now they're trying to blame the Romney-Ryan ticket for making this an issue."
Ryan went on to talk about Afghanistan and Iraq. Raddatz then questioned Ryan about Romney's initial reaction to the Libyan attack, but Ryan's answer was interrupted by Biden. "Am I going to get to say anything here?" the vice president asked and, after Ryan attempted to continue, Biden interrupted again. "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey," Biden declared, saying that "not a single thing [Ryan] said is accurate." The Democrat went on to say that Romney's reaction to the Libya attack was "a political statement which was panned by the media around the world," and concluded with an apparent insult to the Republicans: "I mean, these guys bet against America all the time."
The debate steadily degenerated, so that when they began talking about taxes and budgets, Biden, Ryan and Raddatz took turns interrupting each other, a transcript showing the long stretches where every other sentence was an interruption. Yet Biden was clearly the worst offender in this regard, as the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes saw it: "You don't win a nationally televised debate by being rude and obnoxious. You don't win by interrupting your opponent time after time after time or by being a blowhard.… Biden's out of control conduct … will be long remembered -- and not favorably."
It is unlikely that Thursday's debate will have any substantial impact on the general trend of the campaign. Romney and Ryan have had a week of surging momentum, while the Obama campaign has become increasingly testy about criticism of the administration's failure in Libya, an irritability no doubt aggravated by polls indicating that the Republicans have pulled ahead in key swing states including Florida. Next Tuesday, Romney and Obama will debate again, this time a town-hall event in Hempstead, New York. Unless Obama can find some way to reverse Romney's momentum in that meeting, there may soon be nothing left of the Democrat's re-election hopes except, to borrow a phrase from Biden, "bluster" and "loose talk."