In case you missed it, I predicted that Paul Ryan would wipe the floor with Joe Biden. That did not so much happen. Ryan did not perform quite as well as I expected — he seemed greener, younger, and he visibly gulped when challenged. But Biden delivered a revelatory performance that proved me utterly wrong, and probably gave depressed Democrats an emotional jolt in the process.
The contrast with Obama lies not merely in their very — very, very — different energy levels. Obama approaches debates with the same intellectual method he uses in his books, his speeches, and his policy discussions. He instinctively tries to find common ground first, trying to work within the framework his opponent has established and acknowledge what he agrees with before delineating his disagreements.
Biden does not bother. He simply casts aside his opponent’s frame and works within his own. He did not ignore Ryan’s arguments, but he barreled over them like an enraged truck driver plowing over orange cones, before moving on to his own intellectual turf. Sometimes he barreled so fast his points were wrong or incomprehensible — most notably when he appeared to attribute the financial crisis to Bush-era fiscal profligacy, and seemed to set the bar for who should pay higher taxes at $1 million a year, not the $250,000 line Obama has labored to align his party behind. But it was a highly effective way to handle the smarmy evasions that Ryan predictably served up.
Biden met his audience at a gut level. Over and over he appealed to them to settle the debate by falling back on long-held prejudices about the two parties. Taxes? Biden set out to utter the phrase “middle class” as many times as he possible could, and to tie Romney and Ryan to the class interest of the very rich. On entitlements, he pulled out of the weeds and reminded voters that Democrats were the party of Social Security and Medicare – “Folks, follow your instincts on this one.” On defense, he repeatedly invoked the possibility that Romney would start another war, which is probably the only real way that foreign policy might enter the thinking of a low-information undecided voter. And three times Biden invoked Romney’s disparagement of the 47 percent, using it to frame the entire Romney-Ryan economic philosophy.
Biden’s most effective, and characteristic moment came when he defended the stimulus, swatting aside Ryan’s insinuations of corruption with statistics showing it had been nearly devoid of fraud. He cornered Ryan by citing the two letters he had written asking for stimulus funds for his district, letters which endorsed the argument that stimulus would create jobs. Ryan appeared not to have prepared for the attack at all.
The funny thing is that, before the debate, Ryan predicted that Biden would “come after me like a cannonball.” Biden surely didn’t fool him. Perhaps the element of surprise is overrated.