Joe Biden dominated the vice presidential debate Thursday night, arguing, mugging, blustering, interrupting, and grinning—lots of grinning—throughout the 90 minutes. He was the classic loud guy at the party. Whether you thought this was winning and effective, or obnoxious and tiresome, probably depends on whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.
I thought both candidates accomplished what they needed to. Biden needed to stop the bleeding after President Obama’s lousy debate last week, and it looked as if he had imbibed a couple of 5-Hour Energy drinks to make sure he came off as strong and impassioned. That energy, and Biden’s willingness to aggressively confront Paul Ryan on the “47 percent,” his plans to cut Medicare, and his vagueness about how the Republican ticket’s tax cut would be paid for and whom it would benefit, were points Obama should have made, but didn’t. Hard to imagine Democrats won’t be relieved and enlivened.
Ryan needed to convince voters that he is a plausible vice president and did so. He seemed knowledgeable, articulate, and not out of his depth on the foreign policy that dominated the debate. (Ryan’s real difficulty on this subject was that his and Romney’s plans in Iran and Afghanistan don’t differ dramatically from Obama’s, which made it hard for him to effectively challenge his opponent.) The age difference between the two candidates was striking. At times, Ryan looked like someone nervously interviewing for a Rhodes Scholarship. But I suspect that Biden’s constant interruptions, which Ryan for the most part stoically endured, engendered sympathy for the Republican and detracted from Biden’s effectiveness in a debate that the vice president otherwise won.
To the extent that tonight’s event has an impact on the race—and I’m skeptical that it will—the difference will be felt most in such swing states as Ohio and Florida and will center on the role of government. Biden did something I’ve never heard before: He made a robust defense of the stimulus. He also articulated far better than Obama did what is at stake in the two parties’ disagreements over Medicare, Social Security, and tax policy. And for all his bluster, he posed a question that I thought was very effective—and that many voters will ask themselves when they go to the polls: “Who do you trust?” For all that Romney helped himself last week, this is not a question he can feel confident will favor him.