Yesterday, I predicted the media would use some pugilistic terminology to talk about the vice-presidential debate, before it happened, to hype the event in an effort to get more people to tune in. But I must admit, I didn't really expect the event itself to live up to the billing.
Tonight was truly the "Fight of the Attack Dogs." Or, as they were calling it locally, the "Thrill in the Ville II." And it was actually worthy of a boxing promoter's overenthusiastic label. But, comedy aside, the feeling I was left with was that what we just all saw was the very first "cable television debate." That requires an explanation, since cable TV has actually been around in a big way since the 1980s. Cable news has really only come into its own in the past 15-20 years or so, and it has ushered in a much feistier style of debate between politicians -- complete with interruptions, talking over each other, snide and dismissive laughter, and occasionally even screaming as loud as you can. Tonight, we saw what a national debate looks like in this style for the first time that I can recall.
To put it another way, I've quite simply never seen anything like what we all just witnessed between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. It was something completely new. Whether it will prove to be a good thing or a bad thing, positive to our national discourse or negative, it was indeed a unique experience, at least for me. Perhaps the final two presidential debates will pick up on the new style, who knows?
Although, perhaps not. A lot of what happened tonight was due to the personalities of the two participants. Maybe Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are incapable of the same type of performance. We'll see.
Previous debates at the presidential/vice-presidential level have had some contentious moments, to be sure. There have been some very sharp and pointed back-and-forths between candidates in years gone by. But never has the level of the fracas stayed so high for so long during a single debate, I would venture to guess. Never have the knives been sharper all evening long. Never has so much blood been left on the floor afterwards. It's easy to pick from the back alley no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled metaphors this evening, it seems.
I write this column, as always, before seeing what all the other pundits have to say. I find this avoids falling into the "groupthink" trap, personally. This can also lead to my conclusions being wildly different than everyone else's, as (in all fairness) happened last Wednesday after Obama's first debate with Romney. I also am loath to actually call "winners" and "losers" in debates, because I think it is extremely rare that anyone actually does "win" or "lose" a debate.
Having said all of that, Joe Biden won tonight's debate. There's just no other way to put it.
Paul Ryan did an admirable job of attempting to mount some sort of defense, but it was precisely that -- a defense, at best. Ryan has been rumored to be easy to provoke, and he remained mostly unflappable tonight. He did almost lose his train of thought a few times, but quickly recovered (to be fair, Biden lost track a time or two himself). But Ryan was clearly outclassed all evening long.
For the first hour, the pressure was relentless. Biden unleashed just about everything Obama forgot to, last week. Each time, you could see Ryan sink a little lower in the water. Biden's finest moment of the night was probably when he brought up the two letters Ryan had sent to him "begging" for some of that awful Obama stimulus money. Ryan absolutely deflated at this point.
Much will likely be made about body language. I'd like to take a moment here to offer up an observation that few have probably made about last week's debate before I talk about tonight. Last week, I thought Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both did fairly well at what they had set out to do. I watched last week's debate on PBS. They didn't use the camera shot that all the other networks apparently used. PBS showed each man as he spoke, and rarely if ever showed what their opponent was doing while they were speaking. All the other networks showed the debate as a split screen. The point I'm trying to make is I think there were shades of the Kennedy/Nixon debate in the analysis. For anyone who heard the famous debate on the radio, Nixon appeared to win. For those who saw it on television, Kennedy clearly won. This was due to body language. I think, in last week's debate, that Mitt Romney won and Barack Obama lost by their body language while the other man was talking. I've gone back and seen split-screen clips, and I can see what everyone was talking about.
Tonight, I watched on a split screen. This was another reason why Biden was the clear winner tonight. Biden wasn't just in his element, he was downright enjoying himself throughout the debate. He couldn't wait to get his answers out, and he was constantly smiling and even laughing at the points Ryan was trying to make. Ryan tried looking cool and collected when Biden was talking, but he came off after a while as almost flinching, waiting for the next body blow.
The entire debate was at an extremely high energy level until the moderator brought it back down to Earth with a discussion on religion and abortion, at roughly the one-hour mark. The moderator, in general, did a pretty good job of moving the discussion along and not being too much of a referee of niggling details like "the clock," which at times threatened to get out of hand but for the most part seemed to work. There were a few instances when Ryan and Biden talked over each other so loudly you couldn't make out what either was saying, but I think the moderator was slightly shocked at the ferociousness of the action herself, a little bit.
I don't blame her. I know I was. As I said, this was the most stunning debate at either the presidential or vice-presidential level I think I've ever witnessed in my life. It's like I went to a movie theater expecting to see an Aaron Sorkin film and instead sat through a Quentin Tarantino slasher-fest. The word that kept popping into my mind while watching was "brutal."
The role of a vice president or vice-presidential candidate on the campaign trail is that of attack dog. Joe Biden, in this traditional role tonight, was completely "unleashed." If you'd like a more erudite metaphor, how about Shakespeare? "Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war." I'm so downright stonkered by what I witnessed this evening that I can't even focus on my own notes taken during the debate, which I'll have to address in tomorrow's talking points instead.
This was, clearly, one debate which not only lived up to it's boxing metaphor billing, but was actually more intense than even the hyperventilatory media sold it as. That is saying something, indeed. This debate will be looked back at through history as the beginning of a new era in American televised debates -- for better or for worse.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant