As did Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden in his debate with Paul Ryan did a better job of selling Barack Obama than did Barack Obama at almost any point in this campaign. Biden dominated, looking forceful and ultimately confident. He may be a hack, but he’s one with heart.
Ryan, in contrast, came across as steely cold, a concoction of talking points and a bit too actuarial. He has the handicap of youth and relative inexperience and sometimes just didn’t know what he was talking about. On Syria, he had the unenviable job of defending Mitt Romney’s proposal, which, as best I can figure out, is to criticize Obama’s approach but essentially do the same thing. Ryan could only return to a talking point about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once praising the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Yes, but that was long ago.
Biden may be the last Irish pol still operating on the national stage. He eschews talking points. He’s emotional, bombastic – but he seems real. He may be an old fashioned politician, but Ryan seemed a new kind of politician – one of those plastic guys with red ties and an updated version of Brylcreem -- “a little dab’ll do ya,” – in his hair. He looked boyish.
For much of the debate, Biden tramped all over Ryan. He interrupted, he rolled his eyes, he muttered disagreement and he smiled so broadly he could play the Joker in the next Batman movie, a la Jack Nicholson. The smile – a brace of menacing teeth – might have turned some viewers off. I dunno. It made me laugh.
Biden’s great triumph was in his effort to show concern. He came out of his corner as the champion of the great and sacrosanct middle class. He cited his mother several times – a bit of a George M. Cohan number, if you ask me – but he pulled it off. He would defend Social Security to the death; Medicare and Medicaid, too. He wanted taxes lowered on the middle class and raised on the rich. Ryan wanted a little of this and a little of that. It turned out he had twice asked for grants from the stimulus program – the very one he was criticizing. He talked. Biden sang.
When it came to Social Security, Ryan had to defend privatization. He did so by telling old people to relax. It won’t apply to them and he used the phrase “younger people like myself.” It was not reassuring, though. Old people don’t trust young people with their financial security. Young people have had it easy. They do not know the terror of losing a pension or seeing a 401(k) go down the drain.
In the White House, someone must be looking up the rules for the next presidential debate. Maybe they could send Biden. Or Clinton.
It’s a thought.