Biden and Ryan Draw; Raddatz Loses

Somehow, Vice President Joe Biden got through an entire debate in 2008 without laughing at Sarah Palin. Yet, at least in the first 15 minutes of tonight’s debate, it seemed that Joe Biden could not contain his laughter at Paul Ryan’s comments.

Tonight’s debate featured two candidates and a moderator, but it was really The Joe Biden Show. The vice president attacked Paul Ryan’s legislative record and vigorously defended the Obama administration's policies. Biden was aggressive and at times dismissive. He eventually got the snickering under control.

It wasn't a smooth performance, but it was a distinct improvement over President Barack Obama’s strategy last week of curling into the fetal position.

Over and over, Biden capitalized where Obama had failed. While Obama took a pass when asked to draw distinctions on Social Security, Biden accused Ryan of wanting to privatize the system. On entitlements, rather than getting into the policy weeds on specific reforms, Biden simply noted that Romney’s and Ryan’s positions have been ill-defined and asked voters to decide intuitively whom they trust.

Yet while Biden did not lose, he also did not win. Ryan mostly avoided errors and was more composed than the vice president. Like Romney, he benefitted from being on the favorable territory of arguing that the economy is terrible, though unlike Romney, he faced an opponent who actually tried to make the case that the economy is on the upswing due to Obama’s policies.

Ryan did make one big mistake that may come back to hurt him. Pressed on the charge that he wanted to privatize Social Security, Ryan started by offering a defense of voluntary private accounts. He quickly caught himself, switching to note that Romney opposes any Social Security privatization. But you might see these comments resurface later in attack ads.

I actually thought the worst performer on the stage was moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News. I’m against the consensus of my Twitter feed on this, and I’m sure I’ll get letters, but I thought her topic selection was terrible and led to a debate that was much less useful than it could have been.

Raddatz asked a lot of foreign policy questions, which was fine, but Libya, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria each got their own question, with no discussion of China, Latin America or Europe. It was like a bad replay of 2004, when we acted like the Middle East was the only part of the world that mattered.

And the last 20 minutes of the debate were given over to silly questions: an abortion question (fine) framed not around policy but the candidates’ religious views (silly); an “is this campaign too negative” question that predictably led to each candidate repeating their own negative attacks; and a “what makes you unique?” question that Paul Ryan couldn’t seem to believe he was being asked.

This is time that could have been spent discussing other issues that have thus far been neglected in the debates: immigration, monetary policy, housing policy, unwinding the fiscal cliff.

The result was a muddled debate, much of it spent on issues of little importance to voters, and it’s no surprise that the network focus groups showed a draw. CNN’s undecided voter focus group split evenly on who won, one third for each candidate and one third saying neither. The debate didn't cause a single person in Fox News' focus group to make up his or her mind.

In a way, a draw was a win for Obama and Biden. When candidates draw a debate, each side gets to insist loudly that it won. That’s what Democrats are doing right now instead of bemoaning their candidate’s implosion. And for them that’s a big improvement over last week. Andrew Sullivan might even crawl out of bed and go for a walk tomorrow.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

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