Chris Matthews, in his epic post-debate meltdown after the Romney-Obama debate, had the most telling line: “this was not an MSNBC debate.” Matthews and other liberals were particularly upset that Mitt Romney had managed to actually speak uninterrupted, occasionally running over his time and requesting opportunities to respond to things Obama said (although the final tally showed Obama spoke for 4 more minutes than Romney, owing largely to his “umms.”).
Tonight was a different animal. Joe Biden came in with one game plan: don’t let voters hear a word Paul Ryan said. The post-debate count circulated by the RNC showed Biden interrupting Ryan 82 times. He was often loud enough that it was hard to hear Ryan speak, and Ryan was frequently cut off before he could finish his answers. On the rare occasions Ryan spoke without being interrupted, Biden laughed, snorted, grinned (even when discussing serious subjects like war and abortion), or at a minimum immediately declared that everything Ryan said was a lie. Biden even shouted at moderator Martha Raddatz and called her a liar too, telling her she wasn’t “being straight” with him.
It appears from the immediate post-debate reaction that this performance was what liberal supporters of the Administration wanted: use the heckler’s veto, don’t let the other guy finish his sentences. It made Al Gore’s famous eye-rolling and sighing performance look like an Oxford debate. Raddatz did – with one cringe-inducing exception at the end – put in a good set of questions, but she failed at what I regard as Job One of a moderator, which is to prevent interruptions from letting the candidates talk.
It’s hard to evaluate the substance of the debate beyond the constant interruptions (I did think Ryan did a good job of remaining civil, polite and mostly cheerful through the whole spectacle). Ryan got off to a rough start the first question or two, which should have been golden opportunities to fillet the Administration’s dishonesty on Libya; he got in some shots, but let Biden distract him by giving rambling answers that packed in everything from Iraq to Afghanistan to bin Laden. After that, Ryan settled in and was the same Ryan we’ve seen so many times, patiently jousting with hostile questioners on hostile turf.
Biden, of course, told a battery of bald-faced lies, as expected (he pretended not to have voted for the Afghan and Iraq wars and Medicare Part D, and gave an absurdly dishonest rendering of the HHS mandate). That may not hurt him, but he may be more hurt by his complete failure to (1) make any sort of positive case for the Administration’s economic record or (2) offer any solutions to anything besides tax hikes, tax hikes and even more tax hikes.
The debate was again short on social issues. Of note, however, was that even Joe Biden couldn’t and wouldn’t defend the nonsense idea that an unborn child is not a human being.
Biden’s main job tonight was to find a way to change the narrative the past week that followed the last debate. With the broader media and independent voters, I doubt he did. With the liberal base, though, at least his adamant refusal to let Ryan finish a sentence gave them something to cheer for. So, for Joe Biden, a modest win, but perhaps a Pyrrhic one.
Ryan’s job was to look and sound presidential, which of course is hard to do sitting down and also hard to do when you are in the equivalent of an argument with a loud drunk at a bar. And the heavy focus on foreign affairs meant he was mostly not playing on the turf he favors. But I think the average TV viewer at home saw a guy who had plans and answers, and kept his cool, and on one occasion – when he referred to Biden being “under duress” to make up for Obama’s bad debate performance – let the viewers in on what was going on.
The wild card, as always, is undecided voters. On the question of which side has actual solutions and can get things done on a bipartisan basis when needed, though, it should be clear. Romney and Ryan are defending plans and proposals – even those that are not 100% fleshed out – because they have plans and proposals. Ryan scored a particularly big hit with his account of having the CBO tell him they couldn’t score Obama’s plan because it was just a speech (a chronic issue during last year’s debt ceiling negotiations). Bill Clinton got re-elected in large part because he made deals that gave Republicans things of lasting value they actually wanted (welfare reform, DOMA, later a capital gains tax cut). Obama never offers anything of the sort, and that’s why Biden had nothing to sell in terms of a competing narrative on that score. I have to have faith that voters who are not with the GOP down the line noticed that difference.