DANVILLE, Ky. – So what are Republicans supposed to do with that? The 2012 debate season began with a lay-up, a Mitt Romney victory that shattered every record in the history of snap polling. Style. Crispness of answers. Eye contact. Their candidate had every advantage that the focus groups crave.
Then came Joe Biden. Imagine you’re a liberal, and think of all the lines you wanted Barack Obama to use against Mitt Romney. There you go. Now: Did Biden forget any of them? Or did he pull a San Diego Fourth of July fireworks display and spray them all at once? “The congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for.” The sequester “was part of a debt deal that they asked for.” “In the past he has argued that there’s rape and forcible rape.”
Liberals and conservatives respond to identical events, identical setbacks to their sides, in precisely opposite ways. Conservatives wonder if the data is skewed. Democrats just know that they’re screwed. After Obama failed them, liberals spent a long holiday weekend discussing just how badly he’d failed. They called into NPR to talk about why he’d failed. They blogged at Daily Kos about why he’d failed. Biden calmed them. For at least 45 minutes he laughed at everything Ryan said—a pitying, who-is-this-schmuck laugh. The first credible Republican spin I heard in Danville: Well, you know, that’s good for him, but not really good enough.
“We had the momentum coming into this debate,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “We still have the momentum. That means it was a bad night for the Democrats.”
Democrats separated the night from the “momentum” talk. Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina confidently told reporters that Obama was on “the path to 270 electoral votes,” and rumors of swing-state slippage could not be trusted, and anyway what about that Biden? “You saw the vice president be a happy warrior out there,” he said, “fighting for the middle class against talking points.”
In my short time in the Messina scrum, he made the “happy warrior” reference—a callback to Hubert Humphrey—twice. The Democrats’ pride carried a whiff of wistfulness. “We could all learn a lesson, all of us, from Joe Biden’s debate performance tonight,” said Sen. Dick Durbin. “Come in with passion and conviction and don’t allow your opponent to dance away.”
I’d seen these Biden tricks when I watched videos of his old debate performances. The 2008 debate with Sarah Palin was a fluke—Biden couldn’t afford to be so pugnacious that it turned women off. Biden applied overwhelming force to Ryan, refusing to let him make a point without rebutting it, either in real time or a few seconds later.
This became the first piece of the GOP’s two-part fight back. Biden was too rough, not serious enough. “When the vice president kept interrupting throughout the 90 minutes, I think there should have been pushback,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz. “That’s what the moderator’s there to do.” An hour after the debate ended, the Republican National Committee released a super-cut of every Biden laugh, claiming that he was “laughing at the issues,” not deriding Ryan. Republicans have enjoyed plenty of success by clipping the worst parts of quotes and sending them to media. Maybe it could work again!
The second GOP counterattack was less pathetic. After moderator Martha Raddatz kept asking Biden for answers on Libya, and why four Americans had been killed in an attack on the Benghazi consulate, Biden claimed that “we weren't told they wanted more security. We did not know they wanted more security there.” In most debates, Biden’s able to expectorate a line like that and get away with it. In real time, Ryan let him get away with it. (Ryan had very few real-time rejoinders that Biden couldn’t turn around and stampede.)
I heard it from Chaffetz first. “It was shocking to think that the vice president doesn’t know that assets were requested in Libya,” said the congressman, who knew it because his House Oversight Committee had just held a hearing where diplomats talked about the needs. Rich Williamson, a former Bush ambassador whom the Romney campaign deploys to bemoan Obama’s horrible weakness, suggested that Biden had birthed a scandal. “If Joe Biden’s position’s right,” he said, “the question is not only why did they fail to give security that was requested by professionals, but what did they know for two weeks?” Dan Senor, who’s graduated from spokesman for the occupation in Iraq to Ryan’s national security tutor, insisted that “the last few weeks have seen the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.”
So the Romney campaign was finishing the day the way it started it—demanding that the Obama administration answer questions about the consulate attacks, looking for ways to trip them up. Paul Ryan got out of the way and made no news. The campaign was back in the hands of the spinners.