The biggest message about Thursday night’s encounter between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan may be that debates work better when all the participants show up. Strong performances from Biden, Ryan, and moderator Martha Raddatz produced one of the most engaging, enlightening, and entertaining debates of recent memory, one marked by dramatic contrasts in priorities, ideology, and personal style. The debate was intriguing in many ways; here are five of the most important.
1. Ryan turned in a composed and confident performance, but Biden delivered more of what his side needed. Biden reawakened dispirited Democrats by pressing the party’s case against the Republican ticket with a vigor and conviction utterly lacking from President Obama’s mailed-in performance at last week’s first presidential debate. Biden was far more forceful than the president on both defense (defending the administration record) and offense. Over the 90 minutes, the vice president shoe-horned in virtually every Democratic critique of Ryan and Mitt Romney – from repeated references to Romney’s comments about the “47 percent,” and the similar comments Ryan has made on many occasions, to taxes, the auto bailout, Medicare, and even Ryan’s support during the George W. Bush era for partially privatizing Social Security. As important, Biden reconnected these discrete criticisms into the overarching Democratic case that Romney will enrich the few at the expense of the many even as he consistently portrayed himself and the president as defenders of the middle class. Biden did everything he could to restore the election to the frame the Obama campaign has worked so laboriously to build before last week’s debate, as a question of: Whose side are you on? In one extended riff on Romney’s 47 percent comments (“These people are my mom and dad -- the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax.”), Biden did more to advance the message Democrats have worked so hard to establish than Obama did during the entire 90 minutes of his lethargic appearance in Denver.
2. Yet Ryan, exchange for exchange, generally held his own. Cool and steady, he displayed none of the nerves evident during the first half of his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in August. Like Biden, Ryan showed discipline in consistently returning to two central messages. Down one track, he pressed the Republican ticket’s ideological case that the election represents a choice between more and less government (“We can’t keep spending and borrowing like this,” he insisted); down the other, he hammered the pragmatic argument that Obama’s approach had simply not delivered the results that would justify another term. “This is not what a real recovery looks like,” he declared during his strong closing statement. “You deserve better.” It’s not surprising that post-debate surveys gave Biden the edge because he was the aggressor for most of the evening. But on his first turn on a stage this big, Ryan didn’t wilt.
3. On several fronts, the debate sharpened contrasts between the two tickets that could play a larger role in the final weeks. Ryan forcefully presented the GOP argument that Obama has allowed dangers to gather against the U.S., especially in the Middle East, by projecting weakness to the world. But Biden countered with an unexpectedly strong, and persistent, effort to portray the Republican ticket, in effect, as war-mongers, too prone to using force in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria. Ryan in turn sharpened the difference between the tickets on social issues by declaring unequivocally: “The policy of the Romney administration is to oppose abortion.” Ryan also doubled down on criticism of the administration’s policy requiring employers to provide free access to contraception in health insurance plans. Those declarations undoubtedly cheered Ryan’s base -- and also Democratic strategists hoping to preserve Obama’s advantage among college-educated white women, the one portion of the white electorate that polls show are giving the president most of their votes.
4. The contrast in style between the two men was every bit as great as expected. Ryan was cool, in command, and as disciplined as his renowned exercise workouts (the only sign of nerves was his tendency to repeatedly sip water). He seemed like an MBA who didn’t need the PowerPoint because he had mastered to memory every single slide. Biden was more the corner barkeeper, or the opinionated uncle at the Thanksgiving table: he interrupted, harrumphed, and rolled his eyes. But he avoided any of the obvious gaffes that Democrats feared, stayed on point through his answers, systematically marched through the criticisms Democrats wanted to hear, and regularly conveyed a gruff straight-talk sincerity -- at no point more effectively than when he insisted the administration intended to leave Afghanistan as scheduled in 2014. “We are leaving,” he said, eyes flashing. “We are leaving in 2014. Period.” In all, the man often derided as a tongue-tied Dwight Eisenhower managed to channel more of a "Give 'em Hell, Harry!" Truman.
5. In all, while the debate will probably help walk back despondent Democrats from the ledge, it actually showed why the nation appears headed for its third photo finish in the past four presidential elections. Ryan was best when he could steer the debate toward a referendum on Obama’s first term, making the case that the results of the past four years do not justify four more. Biden was often powerful when he framed the race around the question of “whose side are you on?” Polls suggest both of those arguments powerfully resonate with most of the few undecided voters not fully committed to either man. Which is why they will probably hear plenty more of them when Obama and Romney resume this tag-team match next week in New York.