Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the age difference between Biden and Ryan. Ryan is more than two decades younger than Biden.
Joe Biden’s debate performance easily cleared the low bar set by his boss: He was aggressive, attentive, and in many ways effective pushing President Obama’s agenda. But he was also sarcastic and condescending – a stylistic blemish against workmanlike rival Paul Ryan.
It is impossible to predict how voters will view Biden’s frequent interruptions, his tense smiles, and his derisive laughter. Did they consider the behavior rude or a reflection of Ryan’s naiveté?
But, clearly, viewers and voters were treated to a free-wheeling and substantial debate over the size of government, the limits of U.S. military power, and other issues defining the choice between Obama and Mitt Romney. In style and substance, Biden v. Ryan outshined Obama v. Romney.
The debate is unlikely to play a significant role in the outcome of the Nov. 6 election. Partisans walked away from the debate happy with their guys’ performance, and undecided voters will focus more intently on the top of the ticket.
"Biden won the passion card. Ryan the wonk card,” said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. “More or less a draw.”
But, boy, what a show.
Moderator Martha Raddatz opened with a simple question: Did an intelligence failure lead to the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Libya? Biden ducked the question and launched into a long-winded defense of Obama’s foreign policies, making sure to mention the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
Ryan answered Raddatz directly and methodically. He noted that it took the administration two weeks to acknowledge that terrorists attacked the embassy, after blaming an anti-Muslim video. He said the administration failed to secure the embassy. And he said Libya is indicative of a broader problem.
“What we're watching is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making things more chaotic and us less safe,” Ryan said.
Unlike Obama, who failed to respond to Romney’s best punches a week ago, Biden responded in kind. He said Ryan’s party voted against increased security for U.S. embassies and that Romney’s first public response to the embassy attack was knee-jerk.
“Usually, when there is a crisis, we pull together,” Biden said, calling Romney an opportunist. “That’s not presidential leadership.”
Call it a draw.
Biden was at his best demonizing Republican policies on the middle class. Democrats chagrined over Obama’s sleepy performance surely were cheered as Biden cited the auto industry rescue and efforts by the Obama administration to help underwater homeowners, calling out Romney’s opposition to those policies.
“It’s about time they take some responsibility here,” Biden said. “And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class we’re going to level the playing field; we’re going to give you a fair shot again; we are going to not repeat the mistakes we made in the past by having a different set of rules for Wall Street and Main Street, making sure that we continue to hemorrhage these tax cuts for the super-wealthy.”
Ryan, more than two decades younger than Biden, seemed at times more youthful than his 42 years. But, mostly, he held his own. For instance, Ryan effectively excused Romney for telling donors that he wasn’t concerned about 47 percent of the public.
“I think the vice president very well knows,” he said with a nod to the gaffe-prone Biden, “that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”
He accused the administration of not aggressively responding to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, refusing to bow to a bullish Biden.
“We cannot allow” Iran to get nuclear weapons, Ryan said.
“You're going to go to war? Is that what you want to do?” Biden snapped at Ryan.
“We want to prevent war,” Ryan responded.
Biden would have won the stature game hand-down had it not been for his behavior during Ryan’s responses. “I love that,” he derisively said after one answer. “With all due respect,” Biden said later, clearly not intending to show respect, “that’s a bunch of malarkey.”
“Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground,” Ryan said at one point, “but I think people will be better served if we don’t keep interrupting each other.”
In the end, voters will be better served if Romney and Obama debate next week at their running mates’ level.