A pro debated a novice Thursday night on national television, and both men were schooled by the moderator across the table.
Both candidates are auditioning for the vice presidency. Based on their performances — not their policies — only Vice President Biden acted as though he could sit at the desk in the Oval Office and have his feet touch the ground. Moderator Martha Raddatz, a journalist who’s more accustomed to flying in a Black Hawk than sitting at an anchor’s desk, pursued each man with the vigor of a woman more accustomed to needling foreign leaders than reciting prompter text.
Caricature is the currency of media and politics, and this election year, both the sitting vice president and the aspiring vice president have inflated their cartoonishness by Greece-like percentages. Consider Time magazine’s newly released photos of Rep. Paul Ryan in gym clothes and backward baseball cap, curling dumbbells. Consider the photo of Biden nuzzling a doo-ragged biker chick last month in Ohio. Ryan portrays himself as a wonk who exercises his mind by crunching numbers and his body by numbering crunches. Biden, pairing foreign-policy credentials with rambling folksiness, has fashioned himself into a blue-collar elder statesman who sometimes acts like your uncle after three glasses of Scotch.
So a debate between the two should be zany, right? Eddie Munster vs. Uncle Fester! Or Eddie Haskell vs. Uncle Buck! In short, great television.
And it was, at times. There was drama (nuclear annihilation!). There were antics (Irish jokes!). There was also a clear protagonist, or anti-hero, depending on your politics: Biden tap-danced his way over an introverted Ryan onstage at Centre College in Danville, Ky. The veep undermined his opponent at every turn: chuckling during Ryan’s answers, muttering “Oh, God” and “It’s incredible,” grinning widely as if listening to a nephew lie about breaking his curfew.
Biden, perhaps the last pre-Boomer on a major-party ticket, turns 70 next month. Ryan, the first bona-fide Gen-Xer on a major-party ticket, exited his terrible twos about three weeks after Biden became a senator. Biden’s Brillo-y white hairline has consolidated into a kind of Donald Trump-like mirage while Ryan’s appears to be advancing, led byhis pronounced widow’s peak.
And yet Biden, even when playing up his long political tenure, radiated much more vigor than his opponent, whom he kept calling “my friend,” although he seemed to mean “my silly, inexperienced friend.” To his credit, Ryan kept his poker face.
Raddatz held firm control of the debate without squelching dialogue or spontaneity. She pushed the men for “specific plans”; she declared, “We’re gonna move on” when answers meandered; and she silenced both debaters with the teacherly interjection of “Gentlemen.” Fairly or not, she reserved most of her skepticism for Ryan.
“No specifics, then?” she asked Ryan about his ticket’s tax plan. “Can you guarantee this math will add up?. . . How do you do that?. . . I wanna know how you do the math.”
The media narrative, bent by an absurd fixation on poll numbers, trumpeted the vice-presidential debate as Biden’s opportunity to redeem President Obama’s flat “performance” in the first debate last week, which somehow persuaded enough poll-able Americans to waffle and therefore rebooted the horse race. Expect this debate to reboot it again, and ’round and ’round we go.
The evening was defined as a test of surrogacy, of each man’s ability to bolster the top of the ticket, but it was more useful to watch the debate as a test of presidentiality (or “chief executive realness,” if you will). They are not spokesmen. They are or would be second in command. And it was easier to imagine the confident Biden starring as the president in a one-hour CBS political drama. And isn’t what these debates are really about: Whom America can imagine in that role?
But the night’s most ready-for-prime-time move came not from either candidate, but from Raddatz, who in the closing minutes of the debate asked them: “Are you ever embarrassed by the tone” of this campaign? Both candidates avoided apologizing for their campaign’s behavior and pivoted back to talking points, but the message from the moderator was clear: You boys might be running for the second-highest office, but the American people don’t like the way you’re doing it.