WASHINGTON – Sometimes you didn't know which Joseph Biden was going to show up. Usually, it was the serious, affable and informed Senate foreign relations chairman who rode in on Amtrak that morning from Delaware. Then, at other times, it was the antic Joe Biden who got up from the table at press breakfasts and talked non-stop as he stared out a window.
Last Thursday in his debate when Rep. Paul Ryan scored his few points, it seemed that “Chucky” was at the table. But on substance, Biden did everything that President Obama could have asked for.
Until the exit polls Nov. 6, there is no accounting for what those who watched Biden grin and smile and laugh and grimace on the split screen took away from the session. Surveys taken immediately afterward rendered mixed results, with a CNN poll showing Republican Ryan won and responders to CBS saying Biden did.
Debate performances by Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and President Ronald Reagan in 1984 suggest that manner has much more to do with winning than real knowledge. If sobriety and purpose still matter more than facts these days, then Ryan won.
Biden's and the administration's worst moments came when ABC's Martha Raddatz asked the vice president to discuss the assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Biden badly misspoke when he said, “we weren't told they [the Americans] wanted more security there.”
Biden also prevaricated when he said, “we went out and rescued General Motors.” The GM bailout began under President George W. Bush. And Biden exaggerated when he said Mitt Romney wanted GM “to go bankrupt.” Actually, Romney favored a structured bankruptcy to save the company, but without first giving the company federal money. The Obama plan involved a structured bankruptcy. Romney's idea was to provide federal help afterward.
Both men voiced other errors on the margins, but after Biden stumbled on Libya, the evening was all his the rest of the way. Moderator Raddatz, mindful of her day job working for left-leaning Disney, which owns ABC, tried to help Biden by repeatedly cutting off Ryan, but Biden didn't need it.
Conservatives claim that Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman from Wisconsin, is now the party's “intellectual leader.” If Ryan's debate performance is any measure, Republicans suffer from severe brain drain.
In pivotal moments, Ryan used talking points from hate radio such as Social Security “is going broke,” and repeated neo-conservative (militarist) demands that the United States not commit to leaving Afghanistan in 2014. Ryan insisted that it was a mistake to pull out of Iraq. Biden firmly maintained the Afghanistan exit date is multinational and unshakable, and made it clear the Obama policy is to insist that Afghanistan and Iraq maintain their own security.
Ryan offered no alternatives to the administration's course on Syria.
Biden nailed Ryan most decisively on domestic issues, demonstrating the GOP is willing to sacrifice federal solvency to preserve the Bush-Cheney tax cuts.
Ryan revealed the GOP has no answers to curbing rising health care costs, or advancing security for Medicare and Social Security other than effectively ending both, historic goals of the ultra-right.
In a telling moment, Biden asked the television audience: “Who do you trust” to protect those still reeling from the recession?
In sum, Biden stopped the bleeding from Obama's first debate with Romney. The vice president stripped away every empty Republican argument on the deficit and foreign affairs. Biden set up his boss to give Romney a real drubbing at Tuesday night's town hall encounter at Hofstra University on Long Island. If Obama fails again, he might as well start packing.