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It’s quite a problem if you think about it at all. What do you do during a debate when your opponent is spouting what you think is malarkey – especially if his passion and delivery are such that he seems to be scoring points with the audience?
We’ll find out tonight if President Obama has a new strategy for that knotty problem. His last strategy for handling it was godawful. While Mitt Romney was talking, the president looked down dourly at his lectern, and if he wrote anything at all, it couldn’t have been much more than aimlessly drawn circles. If he had been fully engaged, his impromptu notes to himself might have said, at the very least, “BIG BIRD!”
Obama’s strategy last time no doubt seemed cool and gentlemanly to him – until his semi-catastrophic notices came in. That’s what makes tonight’s 90-minute set-to doubly interesting.
Joe Biden’s answer to that problem during last Thursday’s veep debate was to interrupt Congressman Paul Ryan occasionally, scoff, label his verbiage “stuff” and “malarkey,” and show off his dazzling, ultrawhite choppers in a huge sardonic smile that was meant to signal the world “Do you believe this guy? What hooey.” However, the only thing those vicious, sarcastic smiles and even laughs conveyed equally to all viewers of both parties is the irrefutable excellence of his dentist. Those, for a 69-year old pol, are some serious showbiz teeth.
What Biden didn’t really know yet about his opponent – who was, as yet, untested in debate for such a massive TV audience – was that he would come off less as vigorously youthful than as inconsequentially adolescent. His voice and manner were more often than not those of a 17-year-old ticking off for Dad all the reasons he ought to be able to borrow the car.
It wasn’t Ryan’s physical appearance that was the problem. It was the lack of gravitas in his speech pattern and in his voice itself. And that’s something a man can’t really help, without undergoing the kind of complete makeover that Hollywood used to give movie stars. (Director Howard Hawks, quite legendarily, helped Lauren Bacall develop her sultry, tenor saxophone voice by telling her to go into a deserted room and scream herself hoarse. He wasn’t crazy about her original voice.)
I know how Ryan feels. I’m no stranger to being thought younger than I am because of looks and manner. At our age, my contemporaries assume I’m always cheered and complimented by that, but, in truth, I’m often not. I sometimes wish I sounded and looked my age more naturally. I assume Ryan feels the same way at times, if not often.
Whatever he feels, Ryan’s manner obviated Biden’s overly reactive performance while he was speaking. Biden’s insistence on laboriously acting his disapproval for us, it turned out, was unnecessary – not as much as Al Gore’s eruptions at George W. Bush, but close. Ryan’s unintentionally callow manner usually took care of that for us, no matter what he was saying.
The one devastating counterpunch during the debate – a knockdown 9 count, at least, if it had been a boxing match – was Biden parrying all of Ryan’s denigrations of stimulus packages by pointing out that Ryan himself had interceded for friends to get them.
The words “cookie jar” were in many of our thoughts at that moment.
Otherwise, the vice president’s historic penchant for talking himself into peril only caused one genuine slip, and not much of one at that – just who the “we” were who did or didn’t know about Libyan embassy security. As horrific as the results were on Sept. 11, it’s not an easy moral responsibility to parse.
The true and best answer would have been, “It’s traditional for the State Department to handle such things, not the Oval Office, which is more than busy enough. That will obviously have to change.” Biden didn’t say that.
What Republicans mostly seized on was Biden’s behavior when their boy was talking and his supposed rudeness.
I’d submit, though, that the problem, in fact, emanates from television, not the candidates, no matter what they do, whether it be braying sarcastically like a jackass and waggling donkey ears at their opponents or stonily staring at their lectern in an expression that could all-too-easily be interpreted as weakness and even shame.
TV needs drama. Split-screen reaction shots are that, with minimal effort. There is, I submit, no way to negotiate split-screen shots well.
A stony and skeptical stare at one’s opponent and a cool, manly shake of the head would do the trick, if the first words out of your mouth in response were suitably devastating.
It will be fascinating to see what a female reaction to the problem will be if it comes up tonight when Rep. Kathy Hochul debates Chris Collins on Ch. 17 at 7 o’clock.
Otherwise, it’s all a mug’s game – at best. No one can win it. The guy with the passion and no concern whatsoever for ideological consistency and factuality always has the advantage.
That was Obama’s massive problem the first time around. He is, we’ve since been told, contemptuous of debates in general. They’re not his thing. That shouldn’t have led to what looked like inadequate preparation, condescension and careless inattention during the course of it.
He lost. Big time. Plain and simple. Poll numbers started jumping around.
Thereby, of course, putting the burden on his veep to bare those lupine choppers in sarcastic dismissal of his Republican opponent.
Obama and Romney have a different format this time – a town hall-style audience that can be expected to react and supply its own evident distaste for whatever it finds phony or risible. If the cameras allow it, all the reactive responsibility won’t be on the candidates, whose every flicker will be under a microscope. They can let the audience do some of the work.
I’d bet anything that, if that’s the case, Obama, for one, will be immensely grateful. At least, he’ll have other things to look at while his opponent presents his newest self – people, in fact; live voters – to attract attention if and when television decides it’s necessary to split the screen during the bloodier moments.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com