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Debate winner: Ryan on style, Biden on substance

REUTERS/Michael Reynolds/POOL
Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden shaking hands at the conclusion of Thursday's debate.

Reactions to the veep debate.

First you have to decide whether it’s all about substance or style.

If it’s style, then it’s all about Joe Biden’s facial expressions. It started with Paul Ryan’s first long answer, ripping the Obama administration for its changing story about whether the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was a spontaneous mob action or an organized terrorist action.

To me, the tragic incident is a bit overrated, especially if it’s going to become the symbol of Obama administration foreign policy. But the administration is justifiably embarrassed for allowing the attack to succeed and for taking too long to figure out its source.

Of course, Team Romney is in the market for any cockup it can use to embarrass the administration. This is normal, natural and inevitable in a modern campaign. Moderator Martha Raddatz might as well have just said: “Congressman Ryan, please rip the administration for a minute or two about Benghazi.” And Ryan did.

But as soon as the camera showed Vice President Biden flashing a big toothy grin during Ryan’s peroration, and then showed him laughing ruefully and finally actually mouthing the words “that’s not true,” I thought that this would become the story of the night and probably swing voters aren’t going to like this version of Joe Biden.

And it never stopped.

Old vs. young

Cut to the first post-debate seconds when Fox News surveyed their crew for reactions, specifically Britt Hume’s reaction, which he said would be all about Biden’s grinning. “I thought it was…It looked like a cranky old man debate a polite young man.”

This morning, I read that the twitterverse lit up instantly with reactions to Biden’s facial expressions with predictable comparisons to Al Gore’s disastrous sighing and eye-rolling during his first 2000 campaign debate against George W. Bush.

Obviously, Dem spinners were to going to say that this was Biden being Biden, that he is a passionate guy who lets his feelings show. It’s also possible that Biden was overcompensating for President Obama’s low-key performance in the first debate, which is universally conceded to have been a political disaster.

Personally, I didn’t care for Biden’s mugging. Let Ryan talk, then point out your disagreements with his answers, factually and otherwise. But I also wish the whole country could take a pledge to actually listen and think about facts and arguments and stop letting every debate be about facial expressions, body language, manners and other issues of style and “optics.”

But what if the debate was about substance?

To me, Biden won the substantial arguments, although maybe “substance” isn’t the perfect word for what I’m describing if by “substance” we mean a battle of facts and figures. Ryan is very good at facts and figures. Today and tomorrow, the fact-checkers will shed some light on which statistics were stretched and which were spot on. Personally, I didn’t hear a whole lot of obvious howlers from either candidate.

The argument that Biden won (in my subjective perception) was the big one, the are-you-better-off- than-four-years-ago one, the whose-side-are-you-on one. In fact, I should call this a substantive argument, and I shouldn’t imply that substance can thrive without facts or figures. The argument I’m talking about is a more general argument about recent history and the fundamental nature of the two parties.

Edge of abyss

Four years ago — four years ago this very month — the financial system was poised on the edge of an abyss so scary that even the Republicans in Congress had to go along with a massive government intervention. That was the eighth year of the Bush presidency and, although life is complicated and certainly the inner workings of the global economy are mysterious, the way these things work, President Bush and his policies and his party have to accept the political responsibility for that scary month and for most of the massive cost of keeping the economy from falling completely off that cliff.

Those policies featured deregulation and tax cuts, especially for the wealthy. They included the cost two wars, at least one of which was sold on a lie or, to put it more charitably, willing suspension of disbelief and refusal to accept the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Obama, by the way, opposed the U.S. entry into Iraq. Biden voted for it. He has since expressed regret for that vote. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan supported the entry into the war and have never, so far as I know, admitted error.

When Biden said “we don’t need another war,” he was noting that the two current wars started under Bush, but he was also flying at a fairly high altitude over facts and history. He wasn’t engaging the Ryan meme that the Obama administration “projects weakness” and that weakness invites aggression. He was suggesting that the hawks and necons who, in recent history at least, always seem to have another war they want to fight, have become a wing of the Republican Party.

Biden can thrust and parry with Ryan over details of bills, although I think Ryan is better at it. But when it gets to the big, substantive architecture of the argument, that’s where I think Biden connected.

He did a much better job than Obama did of suggesting, when you get above the details, the Republicans are always seeking another tax cut for the rich. They are always trying to privatize or voucherize Social Security and Medicare because, as he said last night, they’ve never been too crazy about those programs, and he told the viewing audience that they are allowed “listen to their instincts” and “trust their instincts” about which party is really committed to preserving those programs.

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/12/2012 - 11:22 am.

    Biden connecting

    I didn’t mind Biden laughing because I was also laughing. But it did get a little much after a while. Biden made the main point, as you said, Eric, that the republicans have never liked programs like SS and have always tried to dismantle them, from 1935 on. SS, for one, was always the “third rail” until fairly recently, when the repubs have tried to present this dismantling in terms of allowing privatization or allowing money to go to Wall Street. One of his finest moments was when he asked about SS results if that money had gone to Wall Street instead.
    He was very clear on vouchers for Medicare as well, and he corrected Ryan’s repeated (with Romney) statement about Obama “robbing” Medicare. If anyone was listening to that; unfortunately the repubs keep repeating that same lie.
    I thought Biden really connected. The cool, distant, aloof, Ryan with vagueness and generalities (I particularly loved his comments on how a Romney admin. would sit down with the Democrats and work out a tax plan. What are the odds of that, given the repubs’ past?

  2. Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 10/12/2012 - 11:30 am.

    Dog Park

    Got to love that opening photo here and at the Trib. Looks like two dogs circling each other at the dog park. Interesting choice.

  3. Submitted by Richard Pecar on 10/12/2012 - 11:34 am.

    The VP issue?

    The VP debate isn’t about facial expressions, posture, pomp, teeth, niceties and, and is not about statistics either or any other forms of pageantry. These make no differnce to me.

    Two basic questions are relevant:

    Which VP candidate demonstrated they could lead the country if something happened to their president?

    Ans. Job Biden.

    Which VP candidate demonstrated they are qualified in the widest range of issues to assist their president?

    Ans. Joe Biden.

  4. Submitted by Jeffrey Klein on 10/12/2012 - 11:36 am.

    There was a purpose behind the “mugging”

    The Romney campaign has shown repeatably that they have no concern for what’s true or not true. If he just like Ryan talk, he’d spend his entire time refuting lie after lie and get bogged down like Obama did. He reacted the only way you can to a liar – with open mocking and derision.

  5. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/12/2012 - 11:43 am.

    So let’s review.

    Mr Romney routed Mr Obama because he was assertive and did not worry about niceties like respect for Obama or the moderator. Obama was routed because he was respectful and non-assertive. Now Mr Biden loses on style because he was assertive and insensitive to Mr Ryan’s feelings? Biden spoke from the heart with decades of wisdom at easy command. Opposite him was revealed a callow person without any depth of life experience searching his mental inventory for a rote talking point or “personal anecdote” that his handlers had crafted for him during debate preparation.

    Biden’s theatricality was most well-aimed in that it attacked the framing. The establishment media adore Ryan. This has allowed him to represent the seriousness and gravitas of his party. In fact he is a Potemkin intellectual who is put forward to put a credible face on a reinsurgency that would inject steroids into the very policies that took us to the edge of the abyss from which we have been inching back over the past several years. The Ryan agenda is a wolf’s agenda in sheep’s clothing but this fact is well-protected by a frame of “respectful” debate and presumption of seriousness carefully policed by the establishment media and their stable of establishment pundits. By showing that the emperor has no clothes, Biden is giving folks the license to realize that in fact the Ryan agenda may be as unworthy, dishonest and destructive of our society as their own instincts suggest. It is unlikely that the media producers and pundits will accept this license, as they know where their bread is buttered. But perhaps some ordinary folks will.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/12/2012 - 11:51 am.

    I grew up with

    old men who looked and acted like Joe. These were guys who spoke from their heart and with their truth all the time. As a younger man I found them at times too much to be around. I wanted to go off and find a nice shirt and tie at the haberdashery and look good in the mirror. Ryan on appearance alone reminds me of my sophomoric untested know it all self. He might ferment but he’s has a way to go. Hanging with his current crowd and looking as he is unwilling to get dirty he may never get there. Age alone is not what makes the difference. Look at his amorphous running mate. Yea I know his life story. But even at that his mettle was not tested.
    The testing of the mettle means go over the cliff by yourself because there is no one else and their is no other choice. It is the journey of the hero summed up best by Joseph Campbell.
    I see both Bidden and Obama as have taken that journey. That journey brings courage and humility. I feel that coming from these two men. I don’t with the other two. They seem hollow men without substance.

  7. Submitted by Carole Bender-Resnick on 10/12/2012 - 12:38 pm.


    I noticed Biden smiling for a long time and thought “not good.” However, It got to the point where I started laughing at Ryan as well. For me, it revealed Ryan’s lack of substance and information. And Ryan is who people want for a Vice President with the possibility of being President. He didn’t have the facts, and I found him to be rather pathetic.

    When Biden started talking and stating facts, I sat up and listened; I was embarrased for Ryan.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/12/2012 - 12:40 pm.


    While some may claim Ryan the winner, he certainly wasn’t winning on facts or even style. Rather, if you looked at the “instant polling” with the so-called undecideds that scrolled under their mugs, Ryan got a bump just for opening his mouth. Probably mostly for being pretty–notably, the bump seemed most prominent from women. I have a hard time believing that anyone undecided has any ability (or interest) in understanding politics in the first place. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the poll line from these individuals seemed to rise on Ryan’s shiny blue eyes.

  9. Submitted by William Gleason on 10/12/2012 - 01:02 pm.

    Ryan’s performance was, indeed, laughable

    At least to anyone who had even a slight grasp of the facts.

    Ryan’s repetition of lies that have been exposed multiple times already in the campaign clearly demonstrated his intention to bluff his way through.

    Matt Taibbi nailed it today in an article that should be read by anyone who believes that Biden’s reaction was inappropriate:

    The Vice Presidential Debate: Joe Biden Was Right to Laugh


    MS. RADDATZ: Do you have the specifics? Do you have the math? Do you know exactly what you’re doing?

    MS. RADDATZ: No specifics, yeah.

    The Romney/Ryan platform makes sense, and is not laughable, in only one context: if you’re a multi-millionaire and you recognize that this is the only way to sell your agenda to mass audiences. But if you’re not one of those rooting gazillionaires, you should laugh, you should roll your eyes, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the Vice President or an ABC reporter or a toll operator. You should laugh, because this stuff is a joke, and we shouldn’t take it seriously.

    • Submitted by Scott Alan on 10/13/2012 - 09:05 pm.

      In Awe

      I am in awe of how your superior thinking has bless the world. After all, the stupid people can be mocked. Thank God for your intellect and provable results. Your attitude is why I as a Democrat was not surprised at the ass kicking in 2010. We are smart and they are stupid. Keep it up. Don’t blame me, I am willing to listen.

      • Submitted by William Gleason on 10/14/2012 - 01:24 pm.

        I never said Ryan was stupid.

        I did say that he lied about the Romney-Ryan budget. No one yet – even on the right – has been able to demonstrate that it will balance.

        This is a simple matter of arithmetic.

  10. Submitted by Matthew Levitt on 10/12/2012 - 02:29 pm.

    Only listen

    I have only listened to the past two debates. On the radio. And then I turn it off.

    Doing so has given me an entirely different perspective than the punditry and the general public.

    I highly recommend doing this.

  11. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/12/2012 - 02:45 pm.

    Poor Joe, he can’t help himself. He was born with a smug grin on his face.

  12. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 10/12/2012 - 02:49 pm.

    nervous tic

    Biden wasn’t laughing because he thought he heard something funny. He was laughing in a reaction to anxiety. Biden was under extreme pressure, more pressure than Ryan was under. Biden had to defend the Obama administration’s record, and at the same time, revive the Democratic base’s morale resulting from Obama’s first debate.
    The possibility that Biden persuaded any undecided voters to vote for the Obama/Biden ticket is slim to none.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/12/2012 - 07:33 pm.

      You have a point

      When you haven’t done anything
      you have nothing to defend.
      And as for pressure, Biden has had a long and successful career.
      If Romney loses, Ryan will never have a record to defend.

  13. Submitted by David LaPorte on 10/12/2012 - 03:01 pm.

    Asking for specifics

    One of Biden’s most effective tactics was to demand that Ryan provide specifics. For example, Ryan excoriated Obama/Biden on their handling of Syria, so Biden asked what Romney & Ryan would have done differently. Ryan’s response was vacuous.

    I suspect that Romney, in particular, has avoided specifics because his position changes so often that he can’t keep them straight. Ryan seems to following the lead of his would-be boss. Good for Biden for calling them on it. You may be able to campaign with vague generalities, but they can’t be used to govern.

  14. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/12/2012 - 03:29 pm.

    And the winner is ….

    Whichever side you’re on.
    It’s clear that both parties (and their adherents) think that their man won the ‘debate’.
    One could say that the real answer will come with the election, except that the record seems to show that the VP debates have even less effect on the outcome than the main events.
    Personally, I think that Biden was modeling assertiveness for Obama.

  15. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/12/2012 - 03:46 pm.

    A smarmy smirk…

    Biden defended Obama with the only tools available.

    • Submitted by William Gleason on 10/12/2012 - 06:12 pm.

      Did you have the sound turned off, Mr. Swift?

      Just a little reminder that Mr. Ryan had trouble, again, with answering direct and specific questions.

      For example:

      MS. RADDATZ: Do you have the specifics? Do you have the math? Do you know exactly what you’re doing?

      … much verbigeration, no specifics…

      MS. RADDATZ: No specifics, yeah.

      The Vice Presidential Debate: Joe Biden Was Right to Laugh

      Even the right wing Powerline commentator John Hinderaker was forced to admit:

      “Frankly, I expected much more from Ryan, and he let us down. A disengaged viewer would have seen Joe Biden as the much more forceful, much more knowledgeable candidate.”


      “Sarah Palin did a much better job against Joe Biden in 2008 than Paul Ryan did tonight. Bizarre, but true.”

      The Veep Debate: How Did It Go?

      How sharper than a serpent’s tooth…

    • Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/13/2012 - 07:23 pm.

      I liked Biden’s Smile. It was a pretty good bullshit alarm.

      (Barack and Joe, Can you send me some stimulus money?
      Love, Paul Ryan)

  16. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/12/2012 - 07:27 pm.

    It matters not

    I can’t believe someone likely to vote would be influenced by a vice-presidential debate. Even more than the presidential ones, a VP debate is political theater at its most egregiously stage-driven, and what we saw were two very good character actors playing their parts. Biden does blustery sanctimoniousness well. Ryan does quieter sanctimoniousness well. I do think Paul Brandon may be on to something when he suggests that Biden was modeling assertiveness for Obama, but we’ll have to sit through more presidential debates to find out. I won’t be watching.

  17. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 10/12/2012 - 10:03 pm.


    I have a PhD in HR and have really specialized in health insurance benefits for the last 20 years both group insurance and individual. I am not a salesman, but a consultant to help companies and people to design their health insurance plan. It became quite clear to me during the debate, and I had this thought for quite awhile, that Ryan knows absolutely nothing about health insurance, group insurance, or medicare. Some of things that he said about the Affordable Health Care Plan, that he insisted on calling Obamacare, were so far from the truth, that it looked like he was intentionally passing on misinnformation. It was by coincidence that earlier in the day that I had phone conference with a state benefits analyst from another state and it concerned AHCP. Several of the things that Ryan touted as the truth where exactly the opposite that I had discussed with another state earlier in the day. It appeared to me that his smug look, was like a crime suspect who got caught, but didn’t think the police had enough evidence to arrest him. Anyway it was quite clear that Ryan either doesn’t know anything about health insurance or intentionally lied about it.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/15/2012 - 09:27 am.

      Smug look

      I suspect you’re right. Many politicians rely on the fact that the people who are real experts in the field are few enough and far enough between that they’re not going to be able to call them out on their lies loudly enough to matter. In other words, they rely on the general ignorance of the public on the policies they tout. It should be that the media does the research to find out whether it’s true or BS by asking experts, but they don’t do that much anymore. The public has to rely on common sense and gut reactions to give them a reason to doubt, and their own research (if they’re so inclined) to find out the facts. I try–but I admit, there’s only so much time in a day. It’s good to hear from people who have experience and expertise in fields that I don’t. Thanks, Kenneth.

  18. Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/12/2012 - 10:11 pm.

    Romneysia and Bidenitis

    Here’s my contribution to the campaign circus. “Romneysia: A medical condition where a political candidate forgets all previous platform planks and statements during a political discussion.” Hopefully, “romneysia” will be covered as a pre-existing condition under the ACA, and maybe it’s only temporary and next week will showcase more substantial statements.

    As for Biden, he was masterful. As a millenial, it was the most human political expression we’ve seen in a while from these four individuals and it was very honest in an understandable way. He prides himself on truth and I credit that in his column. He enjoyed taking on the debate and I do not see Obama-Biden as “running away” from their record as portrayed…

    Biden did have a bad case of “bidenitis” last night though, uncontrollable smiling and outbursts of laughing and hyperactivity but as a voice of my generation – it was infectious. We all got a case of the bidenitis because the shifting and dodging and scheming of republican strategists and tacticians is comical at best and dangerous at the worst.

    Also, I feel the Millenial generation is much more attuned with the evolving, enormous magnitude of things like “change” and “global economy” or “housing market”, “Rome wasn’t built overnight.” That concept seems to have been omitted from decades of history lessons and skipped a generation who feel that Obama-Biden are responsible for the current state of the economy and foreign affairs. Hello, America? While I do not fully support all of their positions, (such as drone warfare), I am not a registered party member and I think Democratic leadership in Congress should step aside.

    Congressman Paul Ryan. Not impressed. I was hoping he would reach me as a Millenial that I may hold optimism for the future of the Republican party. But there is no future, only past. Too much contradiction to start. “Responsibility.” Leave it at that. Joe Musich’s comment was 100% spot on.


  19. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/13/2012 - 10:58 am.

    Even the gods in their heaven, wherever, were chuckling

    I thought Biden showed a great deal of restraint…he was not rolling in the aisles holding his sides like a number were here among initially, a more tolerant crowd?

    Ryan was a joke with his numbers game that didn’t add up…

  20. Submitted by tim johnson on 10/13/2012 - 01:25 pm.

    veep debate

    Mr. Black: you point out, as others have, that Biden voted for war… but you fail to notice, or mention, that in the debate he said he voted against both wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    I think the word “lie” is thrown around too much, including by commenters here, as a synonym for disagreements or arguable opinions about facts; but it’s hard to believe a longtime senator could miss-state his own vote on two such important deals and not chock it up to lying….
    You can have your point of view that the left cares more about the poor and middle class because they are more willing to spend public monies on them; but does that extend to your view of parenting, that the best parents are those who spend the most money for whatever it is their kids ask for?
    Don’t twist the metaphor into a suggestion that it relegates the poor and middle class into children; the theme of the metaphor is how do you best care for others? Is it always to find new ways to spend the public treasury on them? Or better to get them in places where they can contribute to the public treasury and, in general, better fend for themselves? That seems the basic disagreement between the two parties and I would hold that lefties wouldn’t hold to their political theory in running their own household.
    Anyway, your view is made problematic by lefties like Biden who spend decades as a senator and somehow become multi-millionaires in the process; it’s as wrong for a lefty to make his millions that way as it is for a conservative.
    Nothing wrong with making millions, necessarily: but it’s better that he make millions while not earning a senate salary, plus the bennies.
    Plus, Biden sort of creeps me out: he’s got more and larger teeth, and more hair, than he had 25 years ago…..weird……
    and come on: whatever you think of his abilities or politics, let’s all admit that nobody projects the countenance of a bullshitter better than Biden; none of you reading this would buy a used car from a guy who looks and talks like that, or believe anything he said about set of bedroom furniture now on a going-out-of-business sale……

  21. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/15/2012 - 10:50 am.

    This discussion is a perfect example

    of confirmation bias. I found it dull and predictable but had to tip my hat to Ryan’s closing, for its textbook delivery.

  22. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/16/2012 - 08:11 am.

    Conformation bias and liberal paralysis

    So the debate only confirmed preexisting beliefs and it’s all about confirmation bias. Elsewhere I’ve complained about the liberal tendency to protect rather than challenge the status quo and this is a good example of that. This has been a constant frustration for decades, liberals and democrats assume that minds can’t be changed by passionate arguments, and now they think they have scientific proof in the form of confirmation bias. Biden offers a passionate and spirited debate and liberals conclude that he “lost” on style? The theory here is that passionate and aggressive advocacy only alienates people, well the end result THAT assumption is mediocre candidates, campaigns, and… Obama’s performance in the first debate.

    Every single core claim of the Romney/Ryan ticket is based on outright deception. Biden’s response to Ryan is simply natural, and appropriate. What else do you do in the face of absurdity? Ryan sat there and blamed Obama for the fiscal cliff republicans engineered and passed. Maye if the press should respond likewise instead of pretending these guys are simply telling “their” truth. The press has done the fact checks, they KNOW these claims are ludicrous, yet there they are, giving the debate to Ryan on style? I know when you stare into the abyss it stares into you but this is ridiculous.

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