Who Won the Vice Presidential Debate: Biden Hammers Ryan, Reinvigorating the Obama Base

Vice President Joe Biden came out swinging and landed haymaker after haymaker on a shocked and confused Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) in Thursday night’s vice presidential debate. Despite a repeated lack of decorum by the vice president, Biden delivered a master-class in going on the debate offensive as he went after Ryan with dogged determination from start to finish.

Ryan was surprisingly ill-prepared to weather Biden's aggressive assault as the congressman refused to take Biden’s approach, attempting to come across as more measured and less partisan. While it may have worked for conservatives at home, Ryan came across as on the defensive for most of the debate, a position the Romney campaign did not want him to be in going into tonight.

Ryan did manage to come off as calm and well put-together on questions concerning foreign policy, arguably his weakest area going into the debate, but was unable to leverage his reputational strength as a "wonk" on domestic policy issues.


Ryan’s troubles kept coming as he balked at answering moderator Martha Raddatz’s requests for specifics on the Romney campaign’s tax plan and defense budget. Ryan danced around the question of how the tax cuts would be paid for, assuring both Biden and Raddatz that “the math works out,” and flat out misstated the Romney campaign’s official position on the defense budget, claiming Romney had no intention to raise defense spending, a claim that was about $2 trillion off the truth.

Biden was also far from perfect, delivering the trademark Biden smirk and dismissive head shaking throughout the debate. Biden’s body language was amplified by his constant interruptions of both Ryan and Raddatz, a habit that became almost unbearable about halfway through the debate. The vice president attempted to temper the potentially negative reaction to his aggressive approach by recognizing it as “frustration” in his closing statement, but his admission was unlikely to mediate his overall unprofessionalism on stage throughout the debate.

In terms of the bigger picture of campaign strategy, the Obama campaign showed its savvy by sending in Biden to bloody up Ryan in a clear and convincing manner. For every conservative crying about an overly aggressive Biden or an unfairly biased Raddatz, there were three liberal voters reinvigorated after a week spent moping about Obama’s poor debate performance. Biden’s performance undoubtedly talked many liberals off the ledge tonight, which is exactly what he needed to do. 

The GOP response to the debate was also telling as GOP representatives spent the post-debate spin sessions complaining about Biden’s interruptions and lack of decorum while dodging questions on Ryan’s lack of substance and specifics. Any campaign strategist will tell you that when you’re talking about the opponent’s style, you probably aren’t too confident that you won on substance.

Also worth noting was the stellar performance by moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News. While sure to take heat and accusations of bias from the right for her tenacious pursuit of specifics from Ryan (likely via the lens of Obama’s attendance at her wedding), Raddatz demonstrated what it means to be an actual journalist. Her control of the discussion coupled with her demand for answers showed what journalists should aspire to be – a stark contrast to the usual talking heads we see on TV, refusing to ask hard questions in the hopes that they’ll get thrown scraps from the politician’s table in the future.

In the end, the debate will be spun as a victory for both sides as the GOP attacks Biden’s etiquette and the Democrats slam Ryan’s lack of substance. Strategically, this was a big win for the Obama Campaign for the simple reason that Biden’s aggressive attacks on the Romney Campaign’s policies will fire up the liberal base and help erase the memories of Obama’s sleep-walking performance a week ago. It provides Obama with a cleaner slate going into next Tuesday’s town hall debate, something he desperately needed.

For Romney, next week will be make-or-break for his campaign. Despite his popular performance last week and surprisingly big bounce in the national polls, swing state polls still show him tied or behind the President across the country. Romney needs to win nearly every single swing state to have a shot at the White House and he knows it, so expect to see another aggressive debate performance from him next Tuesday. For Democrats, the weekend will be spent hoping Obama does the same.

For a full recap on the VP debate, visit the Mark My Words live blog here

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Mark Kogan

Mark is a lawyer and Mic contributor living in Washington, D.C.

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