In the normal course of events, vice-presidential debates, much like vice-presidents themselves, don't particularly matter. And this may well prove to be the case with Thursday night's confrontation in Kentucky. But if it is, it won't be for lack of trying on the part of Joe Biden, whose high-energy performance – part angry bar-room debater, part condescending elder uncle, part comic mime artist – frequently seemed to leave Paul Ryan overwhelmed.
On more than one occasion, the Republican candidate visibly gulped. It's dispiriting, of course, that political discourse should have been reduced to such displays of alpha-male dominance, but there were times when the debate might have benefited from a whispering David Attenborough voiceover: "And so the victorious older male, having bared his cosmetically enhanced teeth, stalks away, muttering: 'With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey …'"
To be sure, Biden delivered no knockout blows, while Ryan snuck in a few well-rehearsed lines and didn't lose his composure. But in the wake of Barack Obama's abysmal performance in Denver last week, the nationwide resurgence of Democratic spirits was practically audible. Their biggest worry may have been that the famously gaffe-prone vice-president was going to swear by accident. ("That's a bunch of stuff," he scoffed instead, in response to Ryan's charge that Obama's administration was abandoning Israel. "A bunch of stuff", he explained when pressed, means "malarkey". Which in this context, it seemed, meant "bullshit".)
"Stop talking about how you care about people," he interrupted at one point, after Ryan had launched into one of his campaign's stock tales about Mitt Romney's personal saintliness. "Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility." Bulldozing his way through the 90-minute debate – excellently moderated by the ABC foreign correspondent Martha Raddatz – Biden did all the things that Obama supporters had complained the president hadn't, including mentioning Romney's 47% remarks (twice) and striving hard to clarify the mathematical impossibilities of the Romney/Ryan tax plans.
Biden is an incorrigible ham. On the split-screen, while Ryan spoke, he could be seen grinning, chuckling, shaking his head, throwing his hands to the skies or hanging his head in exaggerated disbelief, a widely varying sequence of gestures that all amounted to "can you believe this guy?" When the questioning turned to religious faith, Biden simply adopted a completely different voice, husky and several tones lower. With exuberant disingenuousness, he referred to Ryan as "my friend" more than a dozen times. But it all seemed to work. It worked much better, certainly, than Obama's decision to act as if the split-screen wasn't there.
The counter-narrative, which Fox News's talking heads were busily attempting to entrench within seconds of the final applause, was that Biden's laughter, like Al Gore's notorious sighs, would prove a liability in the coming days. Independent voters, according to this version of the conventional wisdom, are alienated by the merest hint of conflict or bullying. Perhaps. The truth, though, is that the debate probably won't make very much difference one way or the other to the balance of support.
But it was a shot in the arm for those already on Obama's side, and may thus arrest the spiralling Democratic panic. Just as long as Obama's performance in the next debate, on Tuesday, isn't a bunch of malarkey.
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