Joe Biden didn’t just meet expectations Thursday night, he completely surpassed them.
Before the vice presidential debate, I’d thought that Paul Ryan would have the upper hand — a young, smart policy wonk and great communicator paired off against an out-of-practice, aging politico with a recurring case of foot-in-mouth disease.
I was wrong.
Joe Biden had clearly studied Barack Obama’s failures in the first presidential debate and decided to do the exact opposite — intensely engaged, smiling and pushing back aggressively at the slightest hint of misstatement or exaggeration.
Paul Ryan was bobbing on the sea of Biden, keeping his head above water much of the time but occasionally overwhelmed by the combined force of personality and facts. He looked like what he was — an earnest, intelligent, over-coached, comparatively inexperienced chairman of the Budget Committee.
Moderator Martha Raddatz had perhaps the best debate, especially compared to the unfocused Jim Lehrer; she actually asked pointed questions and follow-ups.
And it was there that the campaign spin had to surrender to stats and facts. Ryan is a budget expert, but he either didn’t want to acknowledge or didn’t know his own campaign’s proposal to increase military spending to 4% of GDP, adding $2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years and blowing a hole in their deficit reduction rhetoric. Likewise, questions about what specifically a Romney-Ryan administration would do differently about Syria, Iran or Afghanistan went essentially unanswered despite the flurry of words.
Joe Biden made his share of unforced errors — interrupting Ryan far too much and getting so overheated at one point that he turned his frustration against the moderator in an awkward spate of finger-pointing.
Ryan also shined in his discussion of deficits and debts, contrasting the president’s speeches with score-able policy. His closing statement was disarming and compelling.
The best moment in terms of style and substance was Raddatz’s question about abortion and the candidates’ shared Catholic faith. Both men gave serious, thoughtful answers on this most difficult of subjects — but Ryan’s anti-abortion agenda contrasted to Biden’s belief that he could not impose his personal religious views on an individual woman’s decision. It was an eloquent defense of the separation of church and state — a core concept we have heard too little about in recent years.
This debate might not get as many viewers as the 70 million Americans who tuned in to the Biden-Palin debate in 2008 — but it was far more substantive, energetic and serious. It was a great debate — simultaneously civil and contentious — the kind we need more of in the United States.
Biden’s strong performance gave the Democrats a much needed shot in the arm, a compelling defense of their values and beliefs that will buoy their sagging morale and change the narrative going into the second presidential debate on Tuesday.
It might not have changed many undecided minds, but it changed the momentum — and that’s a win in our democracy circa 2012.