There was a clear winner in Thursday’s debate: anyone who followed it without visuals. The Joker-like grin of Joe Biden and the smarmy smirk of Paul Ryan made the whole experience nearly too uncomfortable to watch.
Neither man had much reason to smile though, since the lead up to the debate showed that the vast majority of Democrats had almost no faith in Joe Biden — making it out to be practically a miracle if the vice-president remained upright for the full 90 minutes — while wunderkind Paul Ryan gave an exceptionally lackluster performance.
Ryan had to do great in order to do a good job; Biden had to do fine in order to do a great job. To say expectations were high for Ryan is an understatement. Ryan is the Great Right Hope — the economic brains of the Republican Party. And while he showed his expertize during the brief segments on Medicare and social security, he floundered through long talks on foreign policy and military strategy in Afghanistan.
That was perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the Vice Presidential debate: the fact that, when the United States is in the middle of an economic crisis, with one of the largest debt-to-GDP ratios in the developed world, so little time was spent on the economy. The debate began and ended on foreign policy. Ryan’s two budgets were mentioned twice and only in passing, while Afghanistan, Libya, and Iran each had segments specifically devoted to them.
Economic performance and job growth only came up during segments about tax-cuts for the rich and stimulus spending for automotive companies. Medicare and social security were discussed, but only when asking Ryan to defend two plans he had never proposed — turning Medicare into a voucher program and privatizing social security. More time was spent arguing over whether American troops should end their active military role in Afghanistan in 2014, as Biden argued, or if they should end their active military role in 2014, but just not tell anyone about the date in advance, which Ryan suggested was the position of the prospective Romney administration.
Had this debate been about economic policy, Ryan very well may have performed better. Unfortunately for him, it was not. As a result, Biden came off as congenial, folksy, and passionate, while Ryan appeared a wooden, nervous, amateur. In short, Biden did to Ryan what Romney did to Obama in the first presidential debate: wiped the floor with him.
It was that first presidential debate that set the bar so high for Ryan. The seven-term congressman had to solidify Romney’s newly found lead over Obama. The Obama campaign was on the ropes, and Ryan had to deliver the one-two punch to knock it out — or perform some similarly appropriate metaphor referencing P90X.
With the confidence surrounding the Republican Boy Wonder, it is likely that he was a little lax in his debate prep — he knows his facts and figures and has talked endlessly about all sorts of fiscal reforms for nearly his entire adult life. In the same way Obama did not apply himself fully during his debate prep, it would not be surprising if Ryan followed the same over-confident course. Biden, however, with his reputation as a gaffe-machine, seemed to have hunkered down and devoted himself to being as well prepared as possible.
Biden did well — very well — but it must be recognized that the bar was set higher for Ryan than it was for the vice-president. Biden could deliver a smackdown of epic proportions without ever having to defend or enter into specifics about the current administration’s policies or plans for the next four years.
Jeb Bush tells a story about his first run for Florida governor in 1994: early on in his campaign, Bush put out a fully costed, detailed policy proposal for nearly every program he sought to enact as governor. In his mind, the voters of Florida could compare his clearly defined policies with the track record of his competitor, incumbent Democrat Lawton Chiles, and make up their minds based on which policies they thought were best.
Bush lost that election, and in the studies performed afterwards, it was shown that almost no one voted for policies — they voted for personalities. They voted based on whom they liked better as a person — who they would rather share a beer with at a barbecue. In this debate, that individual was clearly Joe Biden, not Paul Ryan, and the polls — if not the election results — will reflect that.