The pop-up wisdom among the pundits immediately following the vice-presidential debate is that Paul Ryan won on style and it was a draw on substance. (The exception is MSNBC, where the main anchors are still covered in champagne.)
The style half is certainly true. Joe Biden came off as a loony, condescending vulgarian, grinning smugly during Ryan’s answers, rolling his eyes, interrupting constantly. There was a telling moment at the beginning of the debate when Ryan was trying to discuss the president’s foreign policy. “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden jumped in. On CNN, where they had swing voters hooked up to approval dials, Biden’s rating plummeted.
Another low point came when Ryan was discussing how cutting taxes and broadening the base had worked in the past. He cited President Kennedy’s tax breaks as an example. “Oh so now you’re Jack Kennedy? This is amazing!” Biden said. He constantly cut into Ryan’s substantive arguments with cheap sneers and one-liners. By the end, he sounded like one of the old-man Muppets that sit in a balcony above the show and lob down smarmy remarks.
This had to be intentional. Biden is capable of controlling himself in an argument. His interactions with Sarah Palin four years ago were much more restrained. But after Obama’s passive performance in the last debate, restraint wasn’t the order of the day. The liberal base wanted blood and the vice president had to provide what the president couldn’t.
But Biden overshot by an Irish mile. The idea that throughout all the grinning and leering and sighing and harrumphing and eye-rolling, any independent voter anywhere was thinking Gosh, I’m glad this guy is my vice president is ridiculous. No doubt someone told Biden he needed to be tough before the debate. But he went too far and seemed smaller than his office.
On substance, Biden exceeded the low expectations that followed the president’s abysmal performance last week. He rattled off facts, knew what he was talking about, and genuinely stumped Ryan on a couple issues. During the shout-match on eastern Afghanistan, he came out on top by making it a choice between sending more Americans or Afghanis to die.
Much of the debate came down to wonk warfare, with the candidates feuding over a detail of tax policy or a CBO conclusion. Biden held his own in these dogfights.
But that doesn’t mean he won the substance contest. Independents won’t be casting votes on the basis of an American Enterprise Institute study that the candidates disputed. The macro mattered more than the micro, and Ryan won the macro.
There was a consistent narrative to Ryan’s arguments. On economics, it was: the Obama Administration told us they’d revive the economy, they tried to do so through a massive expansion of government, and it didn’t work. On foreign policy, it was: the president has been weak around the world and we’re worse off today, whether it’s with Iran increased nuclear capabilities or the recent haplessness with our embassies in the Middle East.
Ryan then drove the point home near the end by ticking off the president’s broken promises. He brought up the debt crisis and blasted the administration. “Leaders run to problems to fix problems,” he said. “President Obama has not even put a credible plan on the table in any of his four years to deal with this debt crisis.” All the Crest dental strips in Biden’s medicine cabinet can’t white out that simple fact.
“That’s what we get in this administration: speeches,” Ryan continued. “But we’re not getting leadership.” He probably meant that as a dig at Barack Obama, but it also applied to Biden’s debate performance. Biden came better armed than the president, but he mostly gave loud, chest-thumping, finger-pointing, eye-bulging speeches at Ryan, Martha Raddatz, the viewers, “all you senior citizens out there,” the world.
Ryan stayed calm, kept his cool, and stuck to the substance of his arguments. He made his points and told his story while Biden bounced across the room. And it worked for him.
It’s hard to say which way swing voters will lean. According to a CNN survey released an hour after the debate, 48% of respondents thought Ryan won and 44% thought Biden won, within the margin of error. But Joe Biden’s goal wasn’t just to win. He also needed to swing momentum back to the Democrat ticket. And thanks to Ryan’s crisp steadiness, he came up short.