(Left) Biden and Ryan during the debate in Danville, Kentucky. (Reuters)
New York, Oct. 12: The understudies performed better than the main contestants in the only US vice-presidential debate last night.
After last week’s lacklustre presidential debate in Denver, millions of Americans got a feel of what a high stakes political debate should be when vice-president Joe Biden and his challenger, Congressman Paul Ryan, faced off in Danville, Kentucky, for 90 minutes on foreign and domestic policy as well as social issues.
A CBS poll of undecided voters immediately after the debate gave 50 per cent marks to Biden, only 31 per cent to Ryan, with 19 per cent describing the debate as a tie. A CNN sample poll of all those who watched the debate irrespective of their political affiliation, on the other hand, gave 48 per cent to Ryan and 44 per cent to Biden. The CNN poll is within the margin of error.
Purely from the point of view of debate aesthetics, it is a pity that a feisty night of political arguments will be wasted in statistical terms: vice-presidential debates have historically seldom influenced the outcome of presidential elections or affected support or opposition to presidential candidates.
Yet, the impact of Biden’s performance on this election cycle is that it has brought enthusiasm back to the Democratic Party grassroots, which was depressed after a post-Denver verdict — shared even by the President’s most ardent supporters — that Obama had comprehensively lost the first debate to the Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
It is difficult to better The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s account of Biden’s performance last night. “Seldom have the words ‘my friend’ been laced with so much arsenic. Joe Biden used them again and again on Thursday night in reference to Paul Ryan, even as he painted the young Congressman as callow, shallow, mendacious and misinformed,” Bruni wrote this morning.
“Seldom has a split screen yielded such vigorous facial calisthenics. When Ryan talked, Biden didn’t just listen. He smiled with disbelief. He smiled even wider with derision. He whipped his head this way and that, laughing scornfully, glancing heavenward in exasperation.
“This was listening as an aerobic exercise, muscle-taxing and calorie-burning, and the message that he conveyed with it was clear: this widow-peaked pipsqueak to my side has a lot of nerve, a lot to learn and no place at the same table where I am sitting.”
It is difficult yet to assess the impact of Biden’s reactions on the American public in the time that is left for the November 6 election. In 2000 the vice-president, Al Gore, acted like Biden in the first presidential debate, sighing and making clear his exasperation with George W. Bush — understandably, no doubt.
Initial polls showed that Gore had won the debate on substance, but as television channels repeatedly replayed the vice-president’s demeanour, opinion changed and Bush was declared the eventual winner of that debate.
That history is apt to be repeated now, but hopefully for Biden last night will soon be overtaken by the second debate between Obama and Romney next Tuesday.
In marked contrast to Biden, who frequently interrupted his challenger, Ryan earnestly listened to the vice -president and referred to his notes while Biden spoke without notes, rattling off incidents from his long political career and marshalling facts with ease. The two men are separated by 27 years, a gap that was stark on the television screens last night.
Obama’s problem which helped Romney improve his standing in opinion polls since their Denver encounter was two-fold. First the President’s lacklustre showing created such all-round shock in view of his reputation as a man of spoken words that the episode had greater longevity than usual on the news cycle.
Secondly, the gap of a fortnight between Denver and the next similar encounter in Hempstead, not very far from here, has meant the perceived defeat of Obama to Romney continues to play on people’s minds while the two men are awaiting a rematch.
While Biden may have injected lost enthusiasm among Democratic Party supporters last night, it will not lighten the challenge on Obama’s shoulders for the next debate.
If the President loses to Romney once again, it could damage his re-election effort in a contest that is still considered as close. There is a view that Romney’s recent improvement in the polls may reflect the depression in Democratic Party ranks after the Denver debate and that a shot in the arm for Obama’s partisans which Biden provided in Danville may reverse that bounce.
Ryan’s challenge at 42 was to demonstrate to the American people that he has the maturity and the substance to be mere heartbeat away from the presidency and shoulder leadership of the most powerful country on earth, should anything happen to Romney in the event of being elected President.
He did that last night, standing his ground as the more experienced Biden reeled off what could make up a chapter in a memoir about sitting in on meetings with Ronald Reagan, legislating on changes to social security and about his 30 or so personal visits to Afghanistan and similar trouble spots as a senator and now as vice-president.
Ryan’s expertise is in fiscal matters but he showed last night that he could learn even about subjects that are not in his daily routine as a Congressman, such as geopolitics.
This year’s vice-presidential debate was somewhat unique in having two Catholics on the same stage. Biden proclaimed his commitment to separate personal beliefs from matters of state when he said he accepted the Catholic church’s opposition to abortion but added that “I just refuse to impose it on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman.”
Ryan matched Biden on this score when he narrated that an ultrasound test on his pregnant wife showed abnormal heartbeat on their unborn baby, but the couple would not go in for an abortion even under such a circumstance.