Editor's Note: This represents instant analysis of the vice presidential debate on Wednesday night. For the author's thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.
Here are my first impressions about the debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan on Thursday evening:
1) The Big Points
- Biden's message in this debate can be summed up in two phrases: "That's a bunch of malarkey" and "Facts matter." In stark contrast to Obama, Biden was proactive and passionate, most notably in his willingness to be outspokenly indignant when calling out Ryan on the alleged errors in his opponent's statements. The angry smile plastered across the vice president's face during many of Ryan's statements, often accompanied by an equally irate laugh, provided punchy visual reinforcement for the strong verbal jabs sprinkled throughout Biden's answers. In the end, even voters who disagree with the Democratic ticket were at least left with an indelible visceral impression of what Biden had to say about the Romney-Ryan arguments. That's because the vice president didn't just say it, but phrased it in especially catchy language that is likely to roll off the tongues of liberals for the next 26 days: "That's a bunch of malarkey." "Facts matter."
- Ryan, as I predicted in my earlier article, didn't make much of an impression. He had one clever quip - i.e., how Biden should sympathize with Romney's "47%" gaffe given that people sometimes say things which come out the wrong way - but I doubt it will be viewed as particularly memorable, since it doesn't diffuse the fundamental doubts raised about Romney's philosophy that were prompted by the infamous videotape in question (although it did get in a good laugh about Biden's own penchant for faux pas). Overall, it is unlikely that Ryan's performance either helped or harmed Romney's candidacy in any meaningful way.
2) Some Smaller Points
- Martha Raddatz was the moderator that Jim Lehrer should have been last week. She asked tough questions, gave both candidates a fair opportunity to reply, and made it clear that she was in control of the discussion. If there is one point on which all sides should agree, it is that Raddatz needs to moderate again in the future.
- As with the first presidential debate, the arguments made by both Biden and Ryan tonight were heavy on wonky policy details that will please their respective partisan bases without particularly impressing independent voters. Consequently, as before, impressions regarding who "won" the debate will be based on stylistic performances rather than substance.
- This was one of the most thoroughly entertaining debates, of any kind, that I have seen in a long time. Thanks to the charisma of the two candidates and the white hot sparks that flew between them, I doubt even the politically uninitiated could have been genuinely bored while watching it.
3) The Bottom Line
Biden won, since he was the only one whose performance will leave an imprint on the popular consciousness.
More important, though, is that Obama lost. Regardless of whether one agrees with his agenda, it is undeniable that he has been derelict in his responsibility to effectively articulate his own case. His post-Convention bounce in the polls was due not to his own forgettable speech, but to Bill Clinton's stirring stemwinder; now, if he winds up recovering in the polls over the next week, it will be due not to his own lackluster debate performance, but Biden's feistiness. I suspect that Biden has managed to mitigate a little bit of the damage done by the first Obama-Romney debate, but overall the burden will lie with the president to accomplish the rest of the job (if it is to be accomplished at all). If anything, Biden's pugnacity only underscored the deferential tone Obama used eight days ago.
The byword of the upcoming news cycle: Malarkey.