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Vice-President Biden closes the enthusiasm gap

12 October 2012

The conventional wisdom dictates that debates between VP candidates are nights that should only interest political anoraks. But the last eight days have not been good for conventional wisdom: remember how boring Mitt Romney was meant to have no chance against a man of Barack Obama’s élan?

Far more than any recent presidential debate, last night’s vice-presidential one was genuinely absorbing, pitting two contrasting, combative and forthright politicians against each other. They were helped by the performance of the moderator, Martha Raddatz. She was far more willing to engage the candidates than Jim Lehrer last week, providing the best possible opportunity for a stimulating debate. And that is certainly what we got.

Joe Biden’s debate performance was almost the antithesis of Obama’s. Where Obama was diffident, Biden was forceful; where Obama lacked figures, Biden was armed with statistics. And, most importantly of all, where Obama looked worn down by four years of political fights, Biden proved he had not lost his fight. After last week’s debate, a horror movie for many Democrats, Biden also benefited from comparatively lower expectations. He didn’t actually need them: most people who saw the 2008 Democratic primary debates would agree that Biden is a much better debater than Obama.

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Predictably, Biden tried to make up for Obama’s mistake in not highlighting Romney’s tax rate and 47 per cent comments. But his attacks on the Romney-Ryan ticket were substantive. Biden was particularly effective in highlighting that they have not specified any of the loopholes that they will close to pay for gargantuan tax cuts, and shrewdly contrasted this with the specific budget-cutting measures outlined by Ronald Reagan before his election victory in 1980. His accusation of the Republicans as ‘holding hostage the middle class tax cut to the super wealthy’ reaffirmed the terrain on which the Democrats feel they can beat Romney, while Biden’s denunciation of Paul Ryan for requesting stimulus funds for Wisconsin while opposing the recovery fund was also effective.

Yet Biden’s punch did not come without a price; with him it rarely does. He has always been liable to be caricatured, mainly for his penchant for gaffes. While avoiding those, his debating style descended into self-caricature as the night progressed, relentlessly interrupting Ryan, and grinning in mockery at his answers. It certainly didn’t sound particularly presidential – but after Obama’s lethargy last week that wasn’t the point.

Just as Mitt Romney did last week, Biden essentially set the terms of the debate. He largely did so through focusing on the Republicans’ positions, as Ryan asserted. It is a sign both of how difficult a re-election campaign this is for the Democrats – though it would be harder still had unemployment not just slipped below 8% for the first time in Obama’s presidency – and the nature of the Republicans’ plank, which is significantly to the right of John McCain’s in 2008.

But, considering the attacks he faced, and that Raddatz’s emphasis upon foreign policy issues did not suit his expertise, Ryan coped fairly well. He has risen very far, very quickly – remember few Americans outside Wisconsin knew his name before the start of Obama’s presidency. Notwithstanding some difficulties, Ryan’s poise did not suggest tonight marked the culmination of his rise. One effect of a Romney victory in 26 days would be in delaying a Ryan presidential bid from 2016 to 2020.

Conversely, if Biden is to make a viable presidential bid, he needs to do so as sitting Vice-President in 2016. His performance marginally increased the chances he will be able to do so; Biden made a far more compelling case than Obama last week for a second term. Suspicions that he may have over-reached in the sheer number of his attacks on Ryan may have some basis, but they miss a larger point. Counter-intuitively, swing voters aren’t really what matter anymore, because they aren’t many of them around.

If Obama loses next month, it will be because his base stayed at home. A recent NBC / Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters, showed Republicans were 6 per cent more likely to be ‘highly interested’ voters than Democrat, a 19 per cent swing in their favour from 2008. Biden’s performance will have done something about that gap. On that basis, and without equating it in significance to the two debates that still remain, this was a reasonably successful night for the Democrats. It was also – continuing the recent burst of challenging conventional wisdom – a reminder that debates are allowed to be entertaining.

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Show comments
  • Kevin

    Biden’s character came out badly last night.

    Firstly, he passed the buck on the Benghazi murders. That has now become a news item in itself.

    He made demeanour an issue last night. It was clearly integral to his strategy. If it is a talking point now, it is entirely his fault.

    On abortion and Catholicism, which was for me a surprise question, Biden defied logic. He claimed to accept the Catholic teaching on the unacceptability of abortion and at the same time scaremongered about a Republican threat to Roe v. Wade. Even Obama knows these are irreconcilable positions. The only logical synthesis is that Biden wholeheartedly rejects the Catholic position.

    Assuming intentionality, this means he lied to our faces on a matter of moral principle. Is this the kind of person one can trust with trillion-dollar budgets?

  • Curnonsky

    Biden’s face should be used as a cautionary illustration of plastic surgery fail.

  • Charlie the Chump

    Beware US labour statistics, they make the ONS look good, with substantial massaging and revision likely.
    I reccomend ZERO HEDGE – – on this and many other related topics.

  • Judith

    Ryan was fighting off two opponents in that debate: Biden and Raddatz. The “moderator” is a staunch Obama bot. Their friendship goes back decades and she is on record (reluctantly) of having invited Obama to her wedding (to a man who is now serving in a highly paid job in the Obama administration). Rabbatz allowed Biden to interrupt mercilessly and herself interrupted Ryan on several occasions just when he was getting into his answers. I really wouldn’t be surprised if Biden had prior knowledge of the questions that were going to be asked. Despite this, Ryan was the clear winner and Biden just came across as a condescending bully.

    • Tron

      Spot on Judith.
      I watched the debate and Biden reminded me of John Prescott. Arrogant, rude and wrong.

  • commonsenseobserver

    I’m beginning to suspect that Dan Hodges secretly blackmailed everyone working here.

  • commonsenseobserver

    And, really, entertaining?

  • commonsenseobserver

    If there’s a word to describe Chicago, and the mainstream media, including that across the Atlantic, it’s “pathetic”.
    If Mrs. Thatcher read this, she’d be embarrassed for having been endorsed by the Spectator when challenging Heath, whom you seem to admire.

  • anyfool

    What on earth has happened, a man according to Tim Wigmore won a debate by being more enthusiastic than the man in a previous debate.
    Has political discourse come to such a sorry state that in the last month.
    Biden was enthusiastic in sneering, interrupting and dissembling.
    Miliband spoke interminably and said precisely nothing, hailed as a great speech by writers in several MSM rags and the BBC.
    Cameron said some of what a Conservative should say, reported between good and great.
    They either lack the ability to discern wheat from chaff or they are writing what they wanted to happen, in either case pathetic.

    • telemachus associates

      That is why our charismatic genius shadow chancellor will win through

  • Jez

    Nice Pro Biden / Pro Obama article.

    Is our media just 100% infected with liberal bias now?

    • Mike Barnes

      Facts and the truth usually do have a liberal bias.

      • Monny

        Great sounding apothegm, Mike. I guess that’s good enough to make it true, for a liberal.

  • commonsenseobserver

    ‘Are you serious?’ – Nancy Pelosi
    Romney and Ryan actually believe in public service, something foreign to Obama and Biden.
    And, really, the $5 trillion debt guys have the cheek to demand specificity on spending and tax? The liberal media is demanding unprecedented standards. I believe that greater clarity is needed, but I also believe that Romney-Ryan have proven their commitment to reform and recovery, at least compared to the guys who don’t even want to cut funding for millionaire Big Bird.
    While Joe Biden dodged and demagogued, Paul Ryan explained and persuaded.

  • David Lindsay

    What a pair! Even allowing for the fact that the addition of what might politely be called entertainment value has long been a function of the Vice-Presidency. More profoundly, it has long been said that American Catholics were “Protestants who went to Mass”. But Biden is a secular liberal who goes to Mass, while Ryan is an Ayn Rand devotee who goes to Mass.

    While it gives even less pleasure than to come down on the side of either of this year’s candidates for the top job, Biden does at least have the advantage that he has already been doing the job of Vice-President for four years, that he might conceivably be a Presidential nominee in his own right (unlike a 42-year-old member of the House of Representatives), and that he does not imagine “our allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar” to be the appropriate arbiters between “al-Qaeda” and anyone else at all, still less between that and some mythical “Free Syrian Army” which is allegedly in favour of Jeffersonian democracy and of Coca Cola.

    Neither of these men has any real interest in reducing abortion. But at least the pursuit of Biden’s favoured economic and healthcare policies would not actually increase it, unlike Ryan’s, and might even reduce it, like the Christian and Social Democracy of Continental Europe which together make possible 12-week limits or outright bans, or like Britain for a generation after the Attlee Government when abortion remained illegal.

    Roll on 2016, when a heavy enough defeat for Romney-Ryan this year ought to have ensured that none of the present quartet will be a candidate for either office.

    And thank God for Russia and China.

    • Vulture

      @David Lindsay: You have just copied and pasted this comment over from what you say on the Telegraph. Why do you bother? Do you spend your entire time writing these ludicrous posts? Why don’t you get a life, find a girl, settle down etc…

    • bloughmee

      Biden was never a conceivable “presidential nominee”, your fantasy to the contrary. He was laughed out of contention in 1988, for his plagiarism and snaky ways. He was greedy enough but shamed enough not to run again until 2008, but was not a factor in the slightest.

      Biden should have been replaced, as that would have given the Obama campaign a talking point boost at least, and removed a smirking gaffe machine. Another strategic blunder then, and facing off against an obsessed automaton like Romney, they can’t afford to to make those.

      The American electorate seems to disagree with your analysis, then. Biden will be forgotten quickly, and my betting now is that the forgetting will start in 25 days time.

      • David Lindsay

        Keep telling yourself if it makes you feel better.

        How long ago was Biden’s Presidential run, which his opponents had to do considerable digging and muck-spreading in order to derail? And quite how old was Paul Ryan at that time?

        Ryan’s nomination is a joke, probably perpetrated on purpose as one, as Romney’s revenge on the Loony Right. Just as John McCain avenged himself against it with the Palin Pick.

        Will that be every Republican running mate for ever more now: the doomed Presidential nominee’s way of getting back at the people who have doomed him, precisely by picking on of their number for all the world to see?

        • bloughmee

          You really must cease the fantasies.

          Biden’s campaign derailments have historically come by his own smirking, gaffetastic hand. We saw more of that last night, hair plugs and capped teeth and all.

          And while the likes of you may call Paul Ryan a “joke”, the Midwestern electorate in his WIsconsin district, which in 25 days will handily reelect him to his seat in Congress, would seem to disagree with you.

          I’m also waiting for the Sarahcuda to take a bite out of an incumbent Alaskan senator, sometime over the next 10 years. You will likely disparage the Alaskan electorate when she wins, similar to your disparagement of the Wisconsin Midwesterners. I guess you know more than them.

          Authoritarians are like that. They know more than the People.

          • David Lindsay

            “the Midwestern electorate in his WIsconsin district, which in 25 days will handily reelect him to his seat in Congress”

            So you have given up all hope of him as Vice-President, then. Quite right, too.

            As for Palin, what does she do now, anyway? It is almost an achievement to have been eclipsed by Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann.

            • bloughmee

              No, actually, one can win election to multiple offices in the US, which you’d know if you weren’t a fantasist. So it appears, apart from all fantasy, that Ryan will be overwhelmingly reelected to his seat in Congress, by the good folk of Wisconsin, while also likely being elected as vice president.

              What does Palin do, you ask? Well, in the run-up to the 2010 election, she was a central point for a Tea Party movement that delivered one of the worst electoral beatdowns in US history, at the local, state and federal levels. It was a shellacking the likes of nothing seen in nearly a century.

              Additionally, my guess is that you’ll be calling her Senator Palin, sometime within the next decade.

              That’s what happens when you authoritarians are rejected, and the People decide. You get electoral shellackings, and the Midwesterners and Alaskans speak their mind, and vote accordingly.

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