Republicans and Democrats Agree: Our Guy Won
This is part of a continuing dialogue between Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson about the 2012 campaign.
Ramesh: Paul Ryan started out shaky and nervous, much as he did in his convention speech, but acquired strength as last night's debate carried on. Joe Biden’s performance was much more consistent, and I think he did a better job of sticking to his core message: The middle class can’t trust Mitt Romney, Ryan and the Republicans, who are all about looking after the rich.
I thought the vice president was pretty effective, too, in pointing out that Republicans don’t have much of an alternative action plan on Iran. Ryan’s failure to come up with a good response to that one strikes me as a failure of Republican foreign policy thinkers, not of Ryan personally. On issues where he had a stronger case, Ryan had a harder time getting any of his messages across, in part because Biden kept interrupting him.
I think Biden’s manner is the story of the debate, and the public reaction to it will end up determining who won. I thought he was fine, at first: feisty, ready to mix it up, happy to be there, unlike President Barack Obama last week in Denver. Pretty soon, though, the yelling, the giggling, and the constant interruptions became unpleasant. He started reminding me why I don’t watch Bill O’Reilly. Ryan clearly didn’t want to do anything in response that could be construed as losing his cool, but I wonder if he didn’t go too far in the other direction by thanking Biden at the end.
What I saw as cranky and rude, many Democrats I’m sure saw as forceful and righteous. The reaction this debate won’t be like the reaction to the Romney- Obama bout, with almost everyone agreeing on who won. Conservatives won’t despair about their ticket, the way liberals did in the immediate aftermath of that one.
The open question is which way undecided voters will swing on Biden’s behavior. Voters seemed to hate Al Gore’s sighing in 2000, and Biden’s conduct struck me as far worse. Sighs don’t keep voters from hearing the other side’s case. If they share my reaction, this debate will cause the Democrats to lose a bit more in the polls. If they don’t, it will give them a modest boost. Either way, though, it ends a week of stories about Democratic angst.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
Margaret: Ramesh, everyone had something to be happy about last night. How often does that happen? You can think your guy won and not be considered delusional.
Biden committed no gaffes, Ryan took no 10-count punches, and it went by all too quickly, like an episode of "Homeland." They met each question with brio, interrupted each other regularly, but rarely with impatience.
Still, I give the night to Biden for lifting despair in Mudville. I don’t subtract points for his laughing, as you do, and at any rate I don't think it was enough to swing the debate to Ryan. The nuns in Joey’s school would probably give him a D for deportment, but those undecided voters you’re counting on to reject him? I don’t think so. Tone and demeanor matter as much as substance, but a comparison to Al Gore? Sighs are annoying, yes, but Gore wasn’t much liked to begin with.
Biden had a way of punching Ryan right on his and his running mate's weak spots. What would have happened to seniors when the market crashed in 2008 and 2009, he asked, if Ryan had had his way and Social Security had been privatized? Bang. Why would Ryan write a letter asking for stimulus money for his district, he wondered, if he truly hated the stimulus? Boom. (“I love that,” Biden added. Ramesh, surely you forgive Biden his good cheer over that one.) After a peculiar question inviting the two to say how their religion would affect their governing, Ryan erased the line between church and state, saying because Catholics believe abortion is wrong, they should make it illegal. Biden said he would not impose his views on others. Bam.
Biden also got in his licks on Mitt Romney' infamous "47 percent" quote (and added Ryan’s statement that 30 percent of Americans are “takers”).
The old man’s voice was husky by the time of closing statements. He was heartfelt, creeping toward maudlin. Ryan was tinny (I didn’t see the nerves you saw, Ramesh) and lacked a soul. For his summation, he strung together three 30 second ads, “offering real reforms for a real recovery for every American."
Neither held the other’s age (or youth and inexperience, to paraphrase Reagan's quip about Walter Mondale in a 1984 debate) against the other. But there were a few moments when the hard-working student paled next to the authority of Biden. Who do you trust on Medicare, Biden asked, looking into the camera. Me or the kid? I think I heard Florida swing.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)