Biden's qualified debate victory

Joe Biden Paul Ryan debate election vice president generic

This post originally appeared on Slate.

In the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden found a way to be both a participant and the guy in the Barcalounger at home yelling at the television. He interrupted Paul Ryan, moderator Martha Raddatz, and even himself with interjections, sighs, and quips. He appealed to the heavens, he looked to the floor. With all the activity, he surely shed calories. When he wasn't engaged in those antics, Biden laughed and smiled to himself as if Ryan had sold him something illegal that he'd just consumed. At times his treatment was so dismissive, he seemed only a few threads of restraint from reaching across the table and patting Ryan on the head.

Biden won the debate, but it was a qualified victory. He energized Democrats who had been down in the dumps since the president's supine performance, but he also energized Republicans who found him rude and dishonest. Swing voters might have been turned off, too. But it probably doesn't matter since they're going to vote for the top of the ticket. It was close in the post-debate polls. In aCBS poll of undecided voters, 50 percent thought Biden had won; only 31 percent thought the same of Ryan. In the CNN poll, 48 percent thought Ryan won. Only 44 percent thought Biden came out on top.

There's an old line attributed to Bill Clinton: It's hard for the other guy to talk when your fist is in his mouth. Biden was up to his elbow. That thrilled Democrats. Speaking of himself, Barack Obama said that he was "too polite" in the first debate. No one will say that of Joe Biden.

Biden's performance was aimed at one thing: painting the Romney and Ryan agenda as a flim-flam operation. He did it with style as much as substance. Looking directly at the camera, he said, "folks, follow your instincts," in the middle of an argument about whether Romney's tax plan added up. Before the debate, a Romney staffer had said one of the things that had worked well for the GOP nominee a week ago was that while voters may not have understood his policy ideas, he sounded like he understood them, which gave viewers confidence in the candidate. Biden was trying to make the same kind of transference. If he could convey exasperation and frustration with Ryan's lack of specificity, the plans that didn't add up, and the broader claims from the Republican team, perhaps he'd be able to make people doubt the entire Republican enterprise.

Biden hit the thesaurus hard. He blurted out that Ryan was offering "malarkey." At one point, he referred to a Ryan riff as "a bunch of stuff." He called out a "bizarre statement" and several times talked about "loose talk" and "slipshod" claims. (What? No hokum?)

The audience for the Biden routine was the middle class. As expected, Biden brought up the secretly recorded video tape in which Romney wrote off 47 percent of the country as dependents and moochers. "These people are my mom and dad--the people I grew up with, my neighbors," said Biden, at the start of an extended riff defending everyday middle-class Americans. Ryan responded with his own number, 10 percent, which is the unemployment rate in Scranton, Pa. He then blew that fact into a more extended argument about the lousy Obama economy. That argument then pivoted to a defense of Romney, which included a great story about how the Republican nominee paid the college bills of a man in his church whose children had been paralyzed in a car crash. The exchange was like much of the debate: Biden was defending the middle class, while Ryan was defending Romney.

Biden hammered Ryan's plan to change Medicare and pointed out that the next president would appoint justices to the Supreme Court that could limit abortion rights. On international affairs, though Biden floundered on Libya, he pressed Ryan on Iraq and Afghanistan, questioning effectively whether the logical conclusion of Romney's aggressive stance toward Iran and Afghanistan meant a deeper military commitment to conflict. "The last thing we need is another war," said Biden.