Two esteemed observers of U.S. politics will provide live assessments of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates for The Globe and Mail. The author, journalist and speechwriter John O’Sullivan is a writer and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the National Review. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Shribman writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he is executive editor.
None of the commentators so far have mentioned what struck me as the most important aspect of the vice-presidential debate, namely the different delivery of the two candidates.
Joe Biden was calm, relatively slow and measured, and deliberate in how he spoke. Not in what he said, but in how he spoke. Paul Ryan, by contrast, spoke rapidly and hurriedly, either because he was anxious to get out everything in his mind on the topic, or simply because he was nervous. At times Congressman Ryan seemed to be gabbling even though my guess is that a transcript will show he was reasonably coherent. As a result it was usually easier to understand what the Vice-President was arguing than to follow the Republican’s more complicated set of points.
This was a serious failure of debate preparation on the GOP’s side. Getting a speaker, especially a relatively young speaker, to slow down his delivery is almost Exercise One in debating. It’s important in ensuring that the audience can understand the speaker, but it also gives him more time to think and to consider what he’ll say next – in short, to get better control of his argument. That simple difference worked heavily in Mr. Biden’s favour all night. You always knew what he meant.
Mr. Biden had three or four points that he had decided in advance to get across – most of them about the “47 per cent” or the follies of Mitt Romney’s tax plans. So, in addition to stating these points clearly, he also stated them repetitively. The questions he was asked didn’t matter much to him; he would begin a reply by making a pro forma reference to what he was asked, but he was soon winging away to what he always intended to say. By the end of the debate Mr. Biden had planted a few simple ideas in the audience’s mind.
In Mr. Biden’s approach we saw, I believe, the impact of the first debate. Mr. Biden arrived ready and willing to hit the Republican hard on three or four issues. He had the lines memorized, the argument down pat, and the attack mentality to go with them. And he hit hard. It helps that the Vice-President is unembarrassable. If Mr. Ryan countered well, as he often did, Mr. Biden got up and started moving forward again.
Mr. Ryan had prepared for the debate, too, but in the wrong way. He had learned the ten and twenty aspects of every issue likely to arise, from the Afghan winter to what the intelligence community know about the attack on the Benghazi consulate. He may even have known too much about them. But he hadn’t boiled this down information into a few sharp effective soundbites – and he would make three arguments where Mr. Biden made one argument three times.
But if Mr. Biden won, as I think he did, he won on points. There was no single knockout, no embarrassing gaffe, no “moment of political nakedness” (as Ben Wattenberg describes an unscripted event that tells us what someone is really “like.”) Indeed,the nearest we came to such a moment was Mr. Ryan’s witty retort – it earned one of only two laughs of the evening – to Mr. Biden’s invocation of Mr. Romney’s “47 per cent” gaffe – reminding Mr. Biden of his own frequent “misspoken” moments. Mr. Ryan left the field with his honour and reputation intact. He had survived a national grilling on a wide range of political controversies against a very seasoned opponent.
How important is the debate likely to prove in the next week? Well, it will help to lift the Democrats’ morale, but not by much. The problem for them is that the debate itself was both confusing and slightly dull. To judge from a very small straw poll that I conducted personally, some people simply stopped watching it and either went to bed or turned to a livelier channel. Last week’s presidential debate was riveting theatre; this was definitely the out-of-town try-out of Hello Dolly.
Might this summary judgment look mistaken in the morning? Quite possibly; many things look different in the morning, and the first post-debate polls favour Mr. Ryan slightly. But I can think of two uncertainties that might tilt things further towards the Republican. The first is Mr. Biden’s claim that U.S. intelligence told the administration that the Benghazi attack was the result of the anti-Islamic video. This seems untrue and might make the controversy over Benghazi still more damaging to the White House than it already is. The second is Mr. Biden’s constant smirking through Mr. Ryan’s replies. At best this was bad manners; at worst it was a deliberate attempt to be patronizing. I can well imagine that many American women, who agree with the Vice-President on abortion, might nonetheless bridle at this rude attempt to put down a very nice young man.
John O’Sullivan is a British-born writer on American politics who lives in Decatur, Alabama. He is editor-at large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.