U.S. Vice President Joseph "Joe" Biden gestures as he speaks… (Scott Eells / Bloomberg )
If President Obama seemed as if he'd rather be getting his teeth drilled than debate Mitt Romney last week, Vice President Joe Biden spent most of his 90-minute televised showdown with Paul D. Ryan on Thursday night looking like he was having the time of his life.
Certainly the format — the two men next to each other at a table facing moderator Martha Raddatz and the audience — played to Biden's experience and jocular ease. Whereas Ryan sat schoolboy straight or hunched tensely in concentration, Biden leaned back, turned this way and that, and played directly to the cameras.
You almost expected him to prop his feet up and say, "Sonny, you just keep tellin' 'em."
Not that Raddatz would have let him get away with it.
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Although the ABC News reporter stopped short of issuing a "no cross-talk" admonition, she certainly had a firmer hand than the blinking and bewildered Jim Lehrer, whose laissez-faire performance last week was widely panned.
Raddatz asked very specific questions — "When could you get unemployment below 6%?" — and wasn't afraid to press in with a pointed follow-up.
She cracked a joke before the debate began about how her years as a foreign correspondent made her paranoid about sitting with her back to the audience, but although the two heads on split-screen gave the proceedings an odd "Hollywood Squares" feel at first, it also created an instant intimacy that the full-body-with-podium template lacks. That in spite of CNN's irritating approval line running at the bottom of the screen like a cardiogram, showing the reaction from a group of undecided voters in Virginia.
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Intimacy is just what Biden wanted. Smiling and more than occasionally laughing in apparent disbelief when Ryan spoke, flatly correcting him, repeatedly contradicting him and often interrupting him, Biden often seemed like he was sharing a joke with the audience.
"That's a bunch of malarkey," he said early on when Ryan accused the Obama administration of misleading the public about the nature of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya.
During discussions of Medicare and taxes, Biden provided such a vocal subtext to Ryan's remarks that he began to sound like a fact-check version of the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" robots. "That's not true," "That's wrong," "He no longer supports that," "I'll give you a simple answer: They'll charge more for Medicare."
After repeatedly telling Ryan that a 20% tax cut was a mathematically impossible solution to the country's woes, he even got in a Lloyd Bentsen-like zinger: "Now you're Jack Kennedy?" he mugged when Ryan argued that John F. Kennedy had supported a similar plan.
But if he thought he would rile the young congressman from Wisconsin, he thought wrong.
Ryan stayed very much on message and got in a couple of barbs himself. After Biden roundly condemned Romney for his recent 47% remark, Ryan shrugged and observed: "As the vice president very well knows, the words don't always come out of your mouth the right way."
It was Ryan's national debate coming-out party, after all, and for the most part he pulled it off.
"I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground," Ryan said at one point.
But while he succeeded, his job was simply to hold his own. The vice president had the tougher task: to both buoy Obama supporters and convince any undecideds that changing horses midstream is not the right choice.
It's tough to imagine another politician who could get away with laughing while his opponent is talking. Al Gore, one could argue, was seriously damaged because of similar, if less charming, displays of impatience. But just as he did with Sarah Palin four years ago, Biden took an accurate measure of his opponent.
With Palin, who provided a much easier target in many ways, he was unfailingly polite, chivalrous even, making accommodations for her newness to the political arena, giving her room, or some might say the rope, to make her own case.
Ryan is a more experienced politician with a voting record so Biden talked a lot tougher, made things more personal and unapologetically reminded everyone how long he's been doing this. He's worked with Reagan, with Tip O'Neill, he was there when they fiddled with Social Security and when the Alamo fell.
Well, maybe not that, but you get the picture.