The Biden-Ryan debate, and the art of not losing

October 12, 2012

Neither side scored anything close to a knockout -- or even knockdown -- in the first and only vice presidential debate Thursday, and both sides can walk away feeling just fine about that.

The fact is that, going into the debate, each side had much more to lose than to gain in a vice presidential debate that rarely has much effect. And by the end of the night, the consensus was that both men -- and, by extension, both campaigns -- emerged about the same, with their bases happy and no major strikes against them.

(A CNN poll conducted after the debate confirms this, with 48 percent saying Paul Ryan won and 44 percent saying Vice President Biden won -- a virtual tie. And majorities thought each man performed better than expected.)

The VP debate in two minutes: Highlights from Thursday night's debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan in Danville, Kentucky.

Here's why:

* Why Biden could have lost: Everyone knows the vice president has a reputation as something of a gaffe machine. Biden faced an unenviable task of both rallying a dejected Democratic base and doing so in a way that didn't create any of the type of "oops" moments he is known for. Unlike his 2008 debate with Sarah Palin, he needed to accomplish something more than just a steady performance.

* Why Biden didn't lose: Yes, Biden risked appearing rude and creating an unhelpful subplot with his constant interjections and scoffs. And it was grating at times. But it didn't rise to the level of Al Gore 2000, when the presidential candidate's sighs and eye-rolling were the lasting image of the debate. When Biden wasn't interrupting Ryan (and sometimes when he was), he was delivering a good performance and hitting the GOP ticket on issues like tax cuts for the wealthy, the "47 percent," Ryan's no-exceptions abortion position, and what Democrats see as Ryan's casual relationship with the truth. All of this will hearten the left and should help rally whatever elements of the party are downtrodden -- or at least not exacerbate the pessimism that followed last week's presidential debate. Biden might have seemed a little desperate to score points, but it was really all about being more forceful for the ticket than President Obama was last week, and Biden accomplished that.

* Why Ryan could have lost: This was a big stage for a congressman from Wisconsin (or any state!). Yes, Ryan has been a national figure by virtue of his House budget committee chairmanship, but debating a sitting vice president is a whole different ballgame. Ryan has also been criticized for the veracity of some of his claims -- something that was a huge storyline after his speech at the Republican National Convention.

* Why Ryan didn't lose: Ryan defined the term "steady." He didn't get flustered by Biden's constant interjections, continuing to make his points and not allowing himself to be cut off. He held his own on foreign policy (which was a big portion of the debate) even as he was debating a man with much more experience in that field. Even when Biden thought he had Ryan pinned when it came to Ryan's assertions about the troop situation in Eastern Afghanistan, Ryan held strong and didn't allow it to mushroom into something bigger. He also faced a potentially troubling moment at the end of the debate when the topic turned to abortion. Biden hit him for opposing abortion even in the case of rape and incest -- a position shared by a small minority of Americans -- but Ryan defused it by sticking to the company line that Mitt Romney's positions are the ones that matter, and Romney supports those exceptions. Ryan may not have created many memorable moments at the debate, but for a Romney campaign that was already feeling better about its chances going into the debate, that's probably a good thing.

Crossroads launches big House buy: The GOP-aligned nonprofit group Crossroads GPS is going up with $8.1 million worth of ads in 11 key House districts, covering the final three weeks of the 2012 campaign.

The ads will benefit five GOP incumbents: Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa), Tom Latham (R-Iowa), Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) and Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.). They will also run in open seats in California's 21st district, Illinois's 12th district, Indiana's 2nd district and Nevada's 4th district and against Democratic incumbent Reps. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

Crossroads GPS is the nonprofit arm of the American Crossroads super PAC.

Fixbits:

Top Obama aide Stephanie Cutter defends her statement that the "entire reason" Libya has become a political issue is became of Romney and Ryan.

A Ryan aide says Time magazine used "poor judgement" in publishing pictures on Thursday of the congressman doing his workout routine. The pictures were from December when Ryan was in the running for Person of the Year, and a Ryan aide said they weren't supposed to be used if he didn't win. Time disputes this.

A day after news broke that he urged his mistress to get an abortion years ago, Rep. Scott DesJarlais's (R-Tenn.) endorsement has disappeared from Romney's website.

Romney says Obama will save Big Bird but won't save Americans.

Mike Huckabee calls Big Bird a "millionaire Muppet."

Democrats have added to their TV buy in the increasingly competitive Arizona Senate race. They have also gone up with their first ads in Florida ($633,000 worth), though they have cut back on their reservations with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) looking like a clear favorite.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) says he regrets calling a young man an "idiot" at an event a few months back.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) former deputy chief of staff pleads guilty to doing campaign work on official time.

Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) get in each other's face -- literally -- in a very contentious debate.

Two staffers to former congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) plead not guilty to forging signatures on ballot petitions.

Must-reads:

"Marijuana legalization on ballot in 3 states, but Justice Department remains silent" -- Sari Horwitz, Washington Post

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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