When President Obama and Mitt Romney debated last week, the winner was clear. After the face-off between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan the only thing everyone seems to be able to agree on without equivocation is that Biden did better than Obama.
The more nuanced analysis might motivate some to cut losses and simply declare it a draw. That’s what the Economist loftily proclaims, even suggesting that anyone who would think otherwise is surely letting partisanship feelings get the better of them. Yet it seems that if you read a bit between the lines, the consensus seemed to see a Biden victory.
Conservative pundits are focusing on Biden’s style, specifically his smile and laughter, while liberals are celebrating his substance. The problem is, Biden might have won among political insiders and those who love a spirited debate but not swing voters who like to loudly proclaim they hate negativity.
Although Biden managed to outshine on substance, he was also sarcastic and some even think condescending toward Ryan. "It is impossible to predict how voters will view Biden’s frequent interruptions, his tense smiles, and his derisive laughter," writes the National Journal’s Ron Fournier. "Did they consider the behavior rude or a reflection of Ryan’s naiveté?"
The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald wonders the same thing. Although it’s evident that “from both a substantive and stylistic perspective, Biden completely dominated the debate,” it’s unclear whether undecided voters "will find Biden's constant smirking, interrupting and obvious contempt for Ryan off-putting," he writes.
That’s what conservatives are counting on. In what can be seen as a sign that Biden did indeed come out on top, conservative commentators spent more time criticizing the vice president than praising Ryan. "Biden sounded like a loudmouth at a bar who had spent the past six hours drinking and should have been cut off by the bartender five hours earlier," quipped the American Spectator’s Aaron Goldstein. "Paul Ryan, by contrast, was a paragon of sobriety." The National Review’s John Fund, meanwhile, said Biden was "overbearing and condescending," adding that "independent voters usually don’t like candidates who come off as a jerk."
Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace went as far as to call Biden’s demeanor historic, saying that "I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a debate in which one participant was as openly disrespectful of the other as Biden was to Paul Ryan tonight," according to Mediaite.
That doesn’t change the widely perceived notion that "the night belonged to Biden, for better and for worse," as Time’s Alex Altman writes. In the Washington Post, Carter Eskew makes sure to note that Ryan wasn’t particularly weak, but "Biden was consistently better." And even some conservative commentators seem willing to concede that, as the National Review’s Robert Costa puts it, Ryan "rarely found his groove."
And, ultimately, how it plays for undecideds might not really be the point. After all, pretty much every analysis makes sure to point out the vice-presidential debate is not important. So maybe the point of Biden’s performance was to energize the Democrats who had become dispirited after Obama’s hugely disappointing performance in the first debate. If so, the strategy seems to have succeeded.
"Biden's performance gave Democrats hungry for energy, punch, and emotional connection what they needed to end a week that had veered at times near panic," wrote BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith. That much is evident on liberal blogs. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, for example, says that the important thing is that "Biden made the whole Democratic argument," which was "exceedingly important for recovering the damage from last week’s debate."
And that’s why the big winner of the night may not be either of the running mates onstage, but the Obama campaign as a whole, points out the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus. "Biden stopped the downhill slide, at least in terms of internal morale," he writes. "And he may have given his boss a lesson or two on how to go on the attack."
But if you’re skeptical of the conclusion, you aren’t alone. After all, we may be falling victim to what the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel describes as the media’s love of "a good comeback tale," noting that "reporters and pundits had been priming all week to explain how Mr. Biden stopped the Obama bleeding."
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