Friday, October 12, 2012

Biden Won the Argument but Ryan Won the Debate

As I posted yesterday, I was worried about Ryan going into the debate and it was justified.  Unlike Biden, who has run for President twice and is in his second run for VP, Ryan never has been in a formal, moderated debate at the national level and so was a little unsure of himself from the get-go.  He really only warmed up near the very end when he rattled off all the broken promises for this administration (it seems by then Biden got too tired to interrupt him).  So Biden won the argument.  He won by interrupting him at least 80-90 times during the debate, which is saying something considering Ryan only spoke for 40 minutes (that comes out to an average of an interruption every 30 seconds).  He was clearly trying to belittle him with his smirks, his head-shaking, his guffaws, his eye-rolling, all of that stuff and it worked.  It also kept Ryan from being able to give any of his arguments any momentum (even the moderator, with personal ties to Obama got into the act of interrupting Ryan). 

But Ryan still won the debate.  Presidential and Vice Presidential debates are not about scoring argumentative points like in some high school debating club, its about perception and how you come across.  Ryan came across as youthful, competent (though a little nervous at first) and unflappable.  I think part of the Biden strategy was to piss off Ryan so much that he either yelled at Biden or yelled at the moderator to get Biden to stop.  As its always the second won to throw a punch who gets flagged in the NFL (and punished on the schoolyard), this could have produced a clip which showed Ryan to be un-Presidential and not ready for the pressure of the office.  Instead Ryan turned the other cheek and just kept going, not letting anything stop him.  Ryan left the debate without creating a single reason for a voter not to vote for him or creating a viral clip which could cost the campaign a few points by embarrassing Romney.  Also, by letting Biden be such an uncontrollable jerk, he pretty much gave Biden enough rope to hang himself, and he did.

Biden came across as incredibly rude and boorish.  Someone pointed out, he was the embodiment of the reason that women don't like debating men about politics, they just steamroll right over them.  And while not a single exchange from this debate will be remembered come election day, his demeanor (with the emphasis on "mean") will be.  People usually remember little things from debates which help send one candidate to victory and the other to defeat.  The famous Reagan vs. Carter debate was very close, Reagan only really got the best of Carter twice, once with "there you go again" and the other with his closing statement which asked "are you better off than you were 4 years ago".  George H.W. Bush lost against Clinton by looking detached when he checked his watch.  Al Gored audibly and rudely sighed when W was talking.  What Biden did was several orders of magnitude more memorable than all of those.  Essentially instead of lots of little gaffes, which is what people expected, his whole debate style was one very long gaffe. Most people wouldn't even want someone like that in their house, much less a heartbeat away from the White House. Here is what Peggy Noonan wrote which I completely agree with:

Last week Mr. Obama was weirdly passive. Last night Mr. Biden was weirdly aggressive, if that is the right word for someone who grimaces, laughs derisively, interrupts, hectors, rolls his eyes, browbeats and attempts to bully. He meant to dominate, to seem strong and no-nonsense. Sometimes he did—he had his moments. But he was also disrespectful and full of bluster. "Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy!" he snapped at one point. It was an echo of Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, in 1988. But Mr. Quayle, who had compared himself to Kennedy, had invited the insult. Mr. Ryan had not. It came from nowhere. Did Mr. Biden look good? No, he looked mean and second-rate. He meant to undercut Mr. Ryan, but he undercut himself. His grimaces and laughter were reminiscent of Al Gore's sighs in 2000—theatrical, off-putting and in the end self-indicting.


National Democrats keep confusing strength with aggression and command with sarcasm. Even the latter didn't work for Mr. Biden. The things he said had the rhythm and smirk of sarcasm without the cutting substance.

And so the Romney-Ryan ticket emerged ahead. Its momentum was neither stopped nor slowed and likely was pushed forward.

Or this from the always great John Podhoretz:

Debate aggression can be problematic. In a face-to-face confrontation in front of a huge audience that includes people whose minds aren't yet made up, it's probably better to stick in the shiv with a calm expression and a slight smile.

Recall that Rick Lazio never recovered from the moment when he crossed over to Hillary Clinton's podium during their 2000 senate race and"invaded her space" by thrusting a document at her. Obviously, there was a gender element there that was not at play here, but in truth, everybody has had the experience of tussling with someone exactly like Biden last night.

Biden was every raging older relative you've ever made the mistake of arguing with at a family dinner. When he talked, he talked and talked; when you talked, he laughed in your face and could barely contain himself.

If the others in your family liked what he had to say before he said it, you were surely rooting him on and forgiving of his excesses — but if they didn't, they surely thought he was an unseemly boor.

And those who didn't really have an opinion about the subject under discussion probably just wanted to crawl under the table, which won't lead to fond memories of the belligerent one.

Perhaps even more important, given the nature of politics in the Internet age, Biden's behavior lent itself to second- and third-day ridicule. Just as Howard Dean's "yeearrgh" call in Iowa in 2004 turned him into a laughingstock and Al Gore's sighs and eyerolls made him satirical fodder for "Saturday Night Live," Biden's wild expressions are going to launch a billion YouTubes and still photos and those animated GIFs that will populate Facebook and melt down Twitter and clog Gmail.

Still don't believe me?  Are you clinging to that CBS internet poll which showed that Biden won?  Let's just look at history.  The problem with instapolls is that it can take time for the impact of a debate performance to set in.  Last week's Romney vs. Obama debate was an exception given that everyone on the right and the left thought Romney creamed Obama.  Usually things are more subtle and the true impact of a debate isn't felt until after the instapolls.  Check out what they were saying the day after the first Presidential debate in 2000 (the one where Gore sighed too much):

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's why I'm here: your friendly neighborhood poll flasher. And what did the polls show? Well, all four networks did flash polls of debate watchers last night. Now here's our post-debate poll of polls.

The ABC News poll shows Gore winning the debate by three points, 42 to 39, and that's within the margin of error. Our own CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup flash poll has Gore winning by seven, 48 to 41, also within the margin of error. NBC News, Gore wins by 10. That's significant. CBS News, Gore by 14, also significant.

So I think we have the answer: Gore seems to have won by a small to moderate margin.

But what actually happened in the polls?  In the CNN tracking poll, Gore went from a 2 point lead the day of the debate to an 8 point deficit less than one week later!  The Democrats might have a spring in their step today but they could be crying tomorrow.  Now I don't expect too much of a bounce from this, this is a VP debate after all, but in a close race, every point counts. 

It should be fun next Tuesday for round 2 of Romney v. Obama.  I'm kind of hoping Obama tries the same schtick, in a town hall format that strategy will be nothing but a disaster, especially when running against someone who comes across as a mix of Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Rogers.

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