By James M. Perry
Who knew Vice President Joe Biden (he graduated 506th in his class of 688 at the University of Delaware) was so smart?
In last night's spirited vice presidential debate with 42-year-old Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Mitt Romney's running mate, at Centre College in Kentucky, the 69-year-old vice president was passionate, ernergetic, knowledgeable, funny, boisterous, and sharply partisan. He was everything Barack Obama was not in the opening presidential debate.
The debate was informative and it was good, clean, old-fashioned political fun. I'm not sure who "won" -- probably neither one, for Mr. Ryan was in good form too -- but surely Mr. Biden gave his fellow Democrats, in a bit of a funk since the President's debate disaster, the shot in the arm they desperately needed.
Vice presidential debates don't normally change the minds of very many voters. That may be because Americans have always thought vice presidents were ordinarily superflous (they aren't really charged with anything day to day, except breaking ties in the Senate) and that maybe they're just a little bit comical. "The truth of the matter is that vice presidential debates are really unimportant in the big picture," said James A. Baker, a big-picture star for both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "It's great theater but it doesn't matter. People aren't making their voting decisions on who's vice president."
"Small stakes make for more fun and quicker moves," Michael J. Robinson, a political scientist, wrote of the VP debate between Robert Dole and Walter Mondale in 1976. It's just as true today.
"Part of what makes second-string debates more watchable is the latitude the running mates have to 'go negative, particularly about the opposing presidential candidate," wrote Alan Schroeder in his book about presidential debates. "This freedom has generated sparks in vice presidential debates that could not ignite in the more rarefied air of the top-of-the ticket appearances."
The debate last night, though, sometimes rose above earlier VP debates. Biden and Ryan are serious politicians, with widely differing views about what this country is and where it should be heading. Voters, if they listened carefully, could have learned a lot more about these basic differences than they could have done in the first presidential debate. These two men were good.
Mr. Biden, right from the beginning, waded in on Mr. Romney's now-famous talk to those fat-cat contributors in Florida in which he said 47 percent of the electorate were moochers, dependent on government support, and were out of his reach. Mr. Ryan replied with what I'm sure was a carefully rehearsed line. "I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way." He was referring, of course, to Mr. Biden's tendency to pop off from time to time. He seemed to be suggesting that Mr. Romney's "47 percent" remarks were Biden-like pop-offs.
"But I always say what I mean," replied the vice president. "And so does Romney." (Did Mr. Biden really mean, talking about the Republicans, that thay "bet against America all the time." It was the debate's nastiest line, and it went uncontested. )
Mr. Ryan delivered a familiar attack on the Obama administration's stimulus package, arguing money went to cronies and much of the money was wasted. Mr. Biden had a reply to that. Mr. Ryan himself, he said, had written to him asking for some of that stimulus money for his district in Wisconsin.
One of the reasons the debate was so successful was the two men were sitting down, next to each other, and the moderator, Martha Radditz of ABC News, was not far way, facing them. She was on top of her game too.
It's too bad we can't bring the whole gang back for a second debate. Instead, we will get two carefully rehearsed candidates exchanging carefully scripted lines for 180 more minutes. The business for them is far too serious to depart from the game card.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com during the presidential election. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.