Tuned In

Debate Watch: Pointed Questions and a Hot Cuppa Joe

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There was another election 2012 debate last night, with a moderator and two candidates, and this time all three showed up.

One striking difference between the vice presidential debate and the Oct. 3 presidential face-off was that Vice President Joe Biden was assertive, spirited and lively where President Barack Obama was placid and passive. The other was that moderator Martha Raddatz chose to moderate the debate, rather than, as did her predecessor Jim Lehrer, sitting back and letting it happen.

It was clear from the get-go that more than the furniture would be different in Raddatz’s debate. She directed specific questions to the candidates, followed up and pressed. Whereas Lehrer set forth a short list of topics and allowed long alternating speeches, Raddatz kept the questions coming and the subjects shifting. I don’t think Lehrer deserves all the blame he’s gotten since last week–a moderator can’t force candidates to be forthcoming and answer directly. But a moderator can at least behave like she expects an answer.

Raddatz opened with a difficult question for Biden on the Libya embassy attack; pushing Ryan about how he and Mitt Romney planned to pay for a tax cut, she flat-out said he was giving “no specifics.” She was active, engaged and on her toes, not so much going for theatrics as she was acting like her first job was not to make everybody comfortable.

And the candidates obliged by giving her a debate, especially Biden. In 2008, Biden’s paramount job in his first VP debate was not to seem sarcastic or condescending toward Sarah Palin, for fear of looking sexist or insulting. And last night he seemed to have about four years’ worth of reacting and gesticulating to get out of his system.

He guffawed. He called “malarkey.” He employed the greeting “my friend” as if it were one of the Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television. He emoted, interrupted and grinned blindingly. He raised both hands to the sky as if asking the Lord God, “Can ya believe this guy?” Biden’s modus operandi in a debate is to laugh as if someone had just told him the world’s most hilarious joke and it was about breaking a 2×4 over your head.

Voters might be divided—as they seemed to be in post-debate polls—on whether Biden’s performance was exhilarating or exhausting, masterful or manic. But one way or the other the debate, and the post-debate analysis was all about Joe: Biden did well, or Biden did poorly. Ryan, mainly, was done to. He kept his tone level, only occasionally lightening up for a zinger or showing flashes of pique, mostly defaulting to a slight, closed-mouthed slant of a grin. This may have been the goal all along for him—to try to show that a young man could have some stature, that a small-government crusader could come across as calm and not a zealot.

(What Ryan did not want to come across as, apparently, was a seven-term congressman at a time when Congress is unpopular. Reportedly, his campaign requested that Raddatz address him as “Mr. Ryan,” not “Congressman Ryan,” a directive she quickly and repeatedly disregarded.)

Whichever way you read the debate, it at least covered far more substance than the previous one. Part of this was by structure—the only VP debate, it was about foreign and domestic issues; and Raddatz, whose forte is world news, probably a good bit more interested in international subjects than the home audience overall. But even within the shorter domestic sections, Raddatz managed to hit on subjects, like abortion and the math of tax cuts, that Lehrer either didn’t raise at all or didn’t pursue aggressively.

“Aggressively” being the byword of the night, or rather the Biden-word. (The debate did go into ballad mode in its closing minutes, as Raddatz finished with some personally reflective questions, including how the two men’s Catholicism affected their thinking on abortion.) It’s possible that both candidates “won” the debate, in the sense of going into it with different goals: Ryan to show calm on a national stage, Biden to rally Democratic enthusiasm after his boss’ sleepy outing a week ago, a whiskey chaser to Obama’s chamomile tea.

Biden succeeded at that last, at least if you go by the reaction on his home turf MSNBC, where Ed Schultz responded gratefully like a man, still hungry after a meal of nouveau cuisine, who was just handed a bloody porterhouse. (Biden seemed to have a checklist of topics Obama supporters wished the President had hit last time out, especially Romney’s “47%” remarks.) On Fox, conservative pundits were far more critical of Biden—but they were, largely, talking about Biden and not Ryan.

Vice presidential debates ultimately are proxy wars, a duel among seconds. They reflect on the presidential candidates, amplify themes and set a tone. Sometimes they also make the case that one of them should be in a Presidential debate next time around. This time, that person was Martha Raddatz.

Update: Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences; the difference is, they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.