As a supporter of Obama – Biden, I found the debate last night soothing. Biden performed well, better than Ryan. From my partisan point of view, it was a good night. After the first Obama – Romney debate, I had a hard time sleeping. Last night, I slept like a baby.
In form and substance, I think Biden was convincing, presenting passionately and clearly the case for re-election, providing Obama a proper introduction for a debate comeback. The contrasting approaches to the practical challenges of our times were on clear view and, I believe, Biden made the Democrats approach more cogent, while Ryan was not able to overcome the contradictions of the conservative Romney-Ryan approach.
First form: Republicans are in convinced. Biden was boorish, Gore – like, patronizing rude. Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard summarizes their judgment: “You don’t win a nationally televised debate by being rude and obnoxious. You don’t win by interrupting your opponent time after time after time or by being a blowhard. You don’t win with facial expressions, especially smirks or fake laughs, or by pretending to be utterly exasperated with what your opponent is saying.”
Indeed Biden was highly expressive. He interrupted Ryan. He smiled, laughed and non-verbally belittled his opponent. I knew as I watched Biden’s performance that the Republican partisans would draw the Gore analogy. I worried, but was also enthused. Now that I have had a bit of time to deliberately consider the evening, I think that there was good reason for my enthusiasm.
Biden non-verbally framed the debate, deflecting Ryan’s criticisms, highlighting the thinness of the Romney-Ryan critique of the administrations foreign policy, and the contradictions of the Romney Ryan economic plans. Take a look at the embedded video. Notice that Biden’s expressive behavior was responsive to what Ryan was saying and that it is consistent with what we know about Biden, the man, how he presented himself last night and how he has presented himself in our experience.
Biden is an honest Joe, sitting at the bar, infuriated by the nonsense he is hearing, unable to control himself, wanting desperately to set the record straight. Herein lies Biden’s victory (I am thinking about the great sociologist Erving Goffman and his master essay “The Nature of Deference and Demeanor”). Far from being a weakness Biden’s expressions are at the root of his decisive victory.
Through his demeanor and his lack of deference, Biden managed to define the situation. He turned the evening in his favor. The debate started with Obama – Biden on the run. Romney had won the last debate and has been on a roll. His stock was up, Obama’s down. Romney seemed to be turning the election into a referendum over the Obama record, as he presented himself as a competent moderate Republican technocrat: no right-wing extremist he. Biden last night in his body language reversed the trend. Who are Romney and Ryan? And why are the saying what they have been saying about American foreign policy? With a puzzled frown, Biden underscored this question. And what are they saying about taxes, Medicare and Social Security? With a flash of a smile, Biden raised serious doubts about the veracity of what they have been saying.
Apart from this win, the debate was a success because each man presented his party’s position: on foreign policy, taxes and deficits, economic growth, social justice, and on the proper relationship between religious belief and public policy, including the issues of women’s rights and abortion.
As a partisan, I am very pleased that Biden made the positions of Obama and his party clear, with a full command of the facts. Ryan also presented his party’s positions effectively. As a theater critic, though, I am struck by the fact that Biden’s performance was more sincere, fluid and engaging. But I know that other theater critics, such as Peggy Noonan at that great theater review, the Wall Street Journal, with different politics, review the debate drama differently.
But theatrical performance, of course, is not really the issue. How the performance is defined by and helps define a script is. And this is why I think that not only did Biden win last night, but that Ryan and Romney lost. Their script is flawed, filled with contradictions about which they can’t, in the end, give persuasive account.
Their response to Obama’s foreign policy successes is to tell a story of weakness, of apology for America. They present a neo-conservative position, while not clearly identifying with the position as brought to us by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. They want to criticize Obama’s policies in North African and the Middle East, asserting the need for toughness. They criticize Obama for working through the United Nations, consulting with allies, dealing with Russia and China as they are, not as imagined Cold War enemies, but they have not presented alternative policies, which very well might not be popular. As Biden suggested: ground troops in Syria and a regional conflict, an international conflict in Iran with a global economic crisis, and continued American troops in Afghanistan.
On tax policy, Ryan claimed they had a plan but wouldn’t explain any details. Cut tax rates for the rich and middle class alike by twenty per cent, pay for it by closing loopholes and reducing deductions, with only the faintest hint of what would be closed and reduced. There’s a problem. Now Romney-Ryan want to claim that this will not affect the taxes of the middle class, but if it is born by the rich (oopps, I mean job creators), how would this lead to their supply side fantasies of an economic boom created by cutting taxes.
The Ryan plan of old was more about reducing the size of government and unleashing private entrepreneurship, unshackling individual creativity, advocating minimal government, his strong Randian inspired ideological streak, also the rallying cry of the Tea Party. Romney, the severe conservative, supported this during the Republican primaries and his choice of Ryan confirmed this support. Now the running mates are running away from this position, as is confirmed by both debates. Romney somehow pulled this off last week, a commanding performance. Ryan couldn’t.
Biden did his job. He has helped Obama by leveling the playing field for the next debate. Biden wins, and the campaign proceeds. I think with the advantage now turning in Obama’s favor.