AFTER adding up the scores following the first and only vice-presidential debate of the 2012 election, Lexington has declared a draw.
The event saw the incumbent, Joe Biden, score points for passion, clarity (most of the time) and a strange, hybrid sort of scrappy, fist-flailing elder statesman’s condescension that (much of the time) was pretty effective. Correctly judging that his main role as a presidential understudy was to savage the other side’s principal, rather than his counterpart across the debate table, Mr Biden lobbed repeated mud pies at the absent Mitt Romney. At one point, dragging the debate back to Mr Romney’s secretly-recorded remarks dismissing 47% of the population as feckless welfare dependents, Mr Biden accused the Republican nominee of insulting the entire extended Biden family, starting with his parents.
As expected, his Republican challenger, Paul Ryan, picked up points for a wonkish mastery of federal taxation, spending and entitlement programmes (with a special bonus for using the phrase “income-adjusted premium support payments” on live television). Less predictably, Mr Ryan was confident and punchy on subjects well away from his special interests as a congressman, notably on foreign and security policy, as he rattled off the names of Afghan battlefields and American commanders with ease. For a man of 42 with a rather narrow career in conservative domestic politics, who aspires to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, that was a useful test to pass.
Mr Biden lost points for grinning like a used-car salesman being asked for a refund (all dazzling white teeth and cold eyes) whenever Mr Ryan landed a punch on him. At moments, the vice-president said too much too fast, burying his arguments beneath a gabble of talking points. He interrupted his opponent a lot, successfully throwing him off his stride. That may have pleased watching Democrats, but probably lost him some sympathy among undecided voters.
Mr Ryan lost points for failing to steer the debate often enough to the fight between Mr Romney and Barack Obama. He seemed genuinely winded by a sharp jab from Mr Biden, who responded to an attack on the stimulus by quoting Mr Ryan’s request for funds under the plan. Under skilled questioning from the evening’s moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Mr Ryan was also largely unable to explain with clarity how Mr Romney’s policies on Iran or Syria differed from the Obama policies he was denouncing with such vigour.
On balance, too, Mr Biden was better than Mr Ryan at casting key arguments in brutally simple terms, as when he ended a long discussion about the wisdom of announcing a timetable for American troops to leave Afghanistan with the warning to the government in Kabul: “step up, step up, we’re leaving.” In a discussion about Medicare health coverage for pensioners, Mr Biden looked directly into the camera and asked watching retirees to trust their instincts, and ask themselves which party was more likely to defend Medicare entitlements. It was not pretty or clever, but it was probably effective.
The debate saw its share of fibs and dubious assertions, but on the whole it was a reassuringly grown-up policy scrap, setting out two clashing visions of the role of government. Viewers could have done without the snowstorm of numbers and statistics that blew their way, not least because Mr Biden kept confusing his billions, millions and hundreds of thousands. Yet there were some fine exchanges.
Mr Ryan, for example, successfully attacked the Obama campaign for seeming to suggest that raising taxes on the wealthiest would magically fix America’s public finances. In Mr Ryan’s words:
If everybody who paid income taxes last year, including successful small businesses, doubled their income taxes this year, we’d still have a $300 billion deficit. You see? There aren’t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending.
And so the next time you hear them say, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll get a few wealthy people to pay their fair share,” watch out, middle class, the tax bill’s coming to you.
Mr Biden dealt ruthlessly with an attempt by Mr Ryan to tell a pre-cooked story about Mr Romney’s charitable donations and good works within his Mormon church. “I don’t doubt his personal commitment to individuals,” the vice-president said, with another of his shark’s grins, before going on: “Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility.”
Democrat and Republican partisans are likely to believe that their man won. Democrats, in particular, will have been cheered up by Mr Biden’s performance, which was combative and gaffe-free. Those conservative Republicans who see Mr Ryan as a potential future leader will have been delighted to see him stride with such confidence off his usual turf of budgetary policy.
It was a good, watchable debate, that will probably change nothing at all about this dead-even race. And therein lies a final, gloomy thought for Democrats. If there was any big conclusion to be drawn from tonight’s impressive sparring by two understudies, it was that—if Joe Biden and Paul Ryan can do it—Barack Obama’s dismal, passive performance last week in his first debate with Mitt Romney was all the more baffling and inexcusable.