Disrespectful. Snide. Hostile. Arrogant. Disdainful. Contemptuous. Patronizing. Rude. Childish. Condescending. Derisive. Smug. Imperious. Scornful. Immature. Unhinged.
Pundits are using all of these words (and more!) to describe Vice President Joe Biden’s Thursday night debate performance. In fact, I’ve used several of them myself. As Fox News anchor Chris Wallace put it, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a debate in which one participant was as openly disrespectful of the other as Biden was to Paul Ryan tonight.” It was bizarre, unexpected, and memorable. And I don’t fully understand why the Vice President did it.
I’ve spent the last few minutes trying to decide what words might overstate Joe Biden’s behavior toward Congressman Paul Ryan. It was a struggle, but I finally came up with one that would be an exaggeration: “violent.” The Vice President never laid a hand on Congressman Ryan. At several points, I wasn’t so sure that he wouldn’t.
Why did Biden act in such a hyper-aggressive manner? Why the constant interruptions, why the forced laughter? I’ve heard several theories, and the most convincing suggests that the Obama campaign doesn’t care what conflict-averse undecided voters think of Biden. After President Obama’s dull, lethargic debate performance last week, all his staff cared about was energizing the base in order to boost Election Day turnout.
That’s sensible in a ruthlessly pragmatic way, but we’re still weeks away from voting. Indeed, there are two (more important) presidential debates left. There’s plenty of time for another game-changing event, possibly several. The short-term gains of stoking Democratic enthusiasm could very well be outweighed by the long-term alienation of independent voters by Biden’s mean-spirited attitude. Perhaps I’m wrong, but this strategy seems painfully short-sighted.
Here’s the thing: Vice President Biden didn’t need to be a jerk on national television. He was well-prepared and well-armed with his talking points. Although I disagree with most of his principles and policy prescriptions, he did a fine job of making the Democratic case when it came to substance. He’s capable of being funny, personable, and warm. Why did he go off the deep end when it wasn’t even necessary?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that he would’ve necessarily won the debate with a different stylistic approach. Congressman Paul Ryan did a solid, if uninspired job, and he didn’t make any major (or even minor) gaffes. In a vice presidential debate, that’s pretty much all that matters when you have the momentum on your side going in.
I know that many of my fellow conservatives expected the wonky Congressman to crush the gaffe-prone Vice President, but that was never a likely scenario. Debating is Biden’s strong point, and he’s more than capable of connecting with voters through emotional appeals. Congressman Ryan, meanwhile, had never debated at anywhere close to that level, and his policy expertise made him vulnerable to “getting into the weeds” on the details.
Some ask if it’s fair to criticize Joe Biden in light of Mitt Romney’s aggressive style in the first presidential debate. While I see where this claim of hypocrisy is coming from, I definitely don’t consider the two performances comparable. Biden interrupted Ryan 82 times in barely 40 minutes of speaking. That’s ridiculous.
But what about Romney? According to this liberal blogger, Romney interrupted President Obama and moderator Jim Lehrer a total of 12 times during the 90 minute debate. If you extrapolate Biden’s interruption total over that same time span, that would be about 185 interruptions. Sure, Romney probably overdid it a little in his debate, but how can you possibly consider the two performances similar? Biden was basically out-of-control for most of the debate, outside of a relatively calm beginning and finale.
What did the liberal blogger have to say about Romney’s twelve meager interruptions?
“Amid the liberal hand-wringing about Obama’s alleged ‘loss’ in the debate, and the conservative chest-pounding about Romney’s alleged ‘win,’ and all the noisy fact-checking on Romney’s lies, almost nobody has mentioned something that I personally found very chilling on Wednesday night. It was Romney’s brazen demonstration of contempt for parliamentary procedure – for the ‘other person’s right to speak’ that is fundamental to our democratic process.”
But wait, there’s more. Keeping in mind the enormous gap between Romney and Biden’s total number of interruptions, take a look at the supposed ramifications of Mitt’s debate performance:
“Why does Romney interrupt? He represents a segment of American society who say openly that they don’t believe in democracy. They believe that their God is above human rules, and that God makes their political opinions ‘right.’ So they see themselves as being above society, and not answerable to it. They don’t feel that they have to show respect for the opinions of others. Hence (for example) the heckling and raucous interrupting that Tea Partiers do at countless town halls across the country for the last couple of years.
…We’re losing our grip on the ability to have ‘civil discourse.’
…To me, the spectacle was appalling. It shows me how far down the slippery slope of social and political decay our country has slid, with less and less possibility of an orderly procedure to analyze and solve our problems.”
(Fun fact: She hasn’t written about the vice presidential debate yet. I wonder why?)
For better or worse, the only thing that voters will remember about this debate is Joe Biden. If he came across as forceful and passionate, then you’ll probably feel that he won the debate hands-down. If he came across as a haughty jerk, then you might automatically give the debate to Congressman Ryan on style points. If you simply read the transcript or somehow managed to ignore Biden’s attitude (likely impossible), you would probably consider the debate a draw, as the media has declared.
Personally, I’m calling the vice presidential debate in favor of Congressman Paul Ryan. The substance was a draw in the eyes of the undecided voter, but I can’t get over Vice President Joe Biden’s unnecessarily obnoxious style. Good grief.