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What to Make of the Vice Presidential Debate? 5 Takes What to Make of the Vice Presidential Debate? 5 Takes

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What to Make of the Vice Presidential Debate? 5 Takes


Moderator Martha Raddatz, left, reaches across to greet Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, right, as Vice President Joe Biden, center, takes his seat for the start of the vice presidential debate, at Centre College in Danville, Ky.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The talking heads and web pundits agree: Thursday’s VP debate was more entertaining and more topically substantial than the first presidential debate. Granted, the bar wasn’t set all that high.

There’s also a positive consensus on Martha Raddatz’s sharp questions and forceful moderation, which many saw as a welcome change from Jim Lehrer’s sit-back-and-watch approach. In all, the debate provided what we wanted to see: Clear discussion of policy, political personalities in command of their platforms, moments of contention, and, yes, zingers. But will it matter as much as last week’s contest?


Below, National Journal writers digest the debate, and analyze how it changes (if at all) the narrative of this election.

It's a Draw -- an Entertaining, Inconsequential Draw

“Boy, what a show,” declared Editor-in-Chief Ron Fournier shortly after the debate ended. He thought both candidates held their positions well, and Joe Biden accomplished an important goal. He “cleared the low bar set by his boss.” But will the debate effect the election? That’s doubtful.

… 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."

The Tie Goes to the Republican

Chief Correspondent Michael Hirsh agrees with Fournier that the debate was essentially a draw, but comes to a different conclusion. Biden didn’t accomplish much by standing even with Paul Ryan. For Obama’s sake, Biden needed to dominate his opponent.

What the 69-year-old vice president needed to do in this debate was to use his vastly greater experience in public office—four decades’ worth—to show up his 42-year-old rival’s inexperience, especially in foreign policy. But Biden at best battled Ryan to a standoff. In particular, Biden was not terribly effective in countering the anticipated Republican script, which involved a move to the moderate middle less than a month before the election. Ryan, who for much of his young career has been a hero to conservatives, managed to successfully portray himself and Romney as defenders of the middle class and responsible stewards of foreign policy who would not get America into another war.

Biden's Best Moment: Defending the Stimulus

Joe Biden offered the best defense of the $800 billion stimulus to date, writes Alex Roarty, even forcing Ryan to admit that he had requested funds for his Wisconsin district. Biden’s defense was a departure from the White House, which usually keeps quiet on the subject.

Vice President Joe Biden offered an unprecedented defense of the Obama administration’s $800 billion-plus stimulus bill to an audience of millions during Thursday night’s debate, and even found a way to use what’s been a political liability to attack Republican rival Paul Ryan.

The vice president’s full-throated promotion of the stimulus -- a program he oversaw after its 2009 passage -- was a sharp departure for a White House that for most of President Obama’s first term often avoided even mentioning the package, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Dems Can Take a Deep Breath

Biden held his own, writes correspondent Beth Reinhard, but that doesn’t change the fact that the race is still essentially a tie.

Democrats, you may exhale. But don't you dare rejoice. …

Few voters will have Ryan or Biden in mind when they cast their ballots, but their first and only matchup in Danville, Ky., was an opportunity for them to alter perceptions of the men leading the tickets. Biden built a populist case against the Republican Party’s plan to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, arguing that those breaks are holding the middle class “hostage.” Ryan shot back that there weren’t enough rich people in the country to pay for the Democrats’ overspending. …

It was a lively, 90-minute exchange between two career politicians who clearly relish a good debate, but the elder statesman frequently prevailed. When Ryan argued that the administration was downplaying the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Biden retorted that Iran faced “crippling sanctions” and suggested a Romney administration would be panting to go to war. When Ryan spoke movingly about Romney’s generosity to his fellow churchgoers, Biden said he didn’t doubt his personal commitments, but what about his commitment to the struggling automobile industry?

If Biden and Ryan Were Mimes

Body language can often be more telling than actual language. Case-in-point: Obama’s downcast and dour expression during the first presidential debate.

It is often said one can proclaim the winner by watching a debate with the sound turned off. Intrepid reporter Michael Catalini was assigned exactly that task on Thursday night. And while he had no clue which candidate was winning on substance -- or even what the questions were -- he saw two polished politicians in their element.

Ryan was at his strongest in the beginning and at the end of the debate when he was the guy explaining that the Wizard of Oz was just a guy hiding behind a big mask. (Not sure who the flying monkeys are in this scenario.) He seemed to pile point on top of point. It was like watching someone do simple addition. It seemed to make sense.

Biden, who frequently looked like he was measuring the height, width, and length of things, was at his strongest in the middle, when the gesticulating died down. He hit his stride and he was Edward R. Murrow, a trusted figure delivering a serious newscast.
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