Why Biden v. Ryan Was So Different From Obama v. Romney
Watching the vice presidential debate on Thursday night, the informed viewer could not help but be struck with certain impressions about the evening and its differences from its presidential equivalent last week. While last week’s clash saw the Republican challenger take the game to the Democratic incumbent, forcing him into a passive corner, Thursday saw the opposite, with Joe Biden harrying Paul Ryan, challenging his assertions and refusing to allow what he saw as misrepresentations of either side’s policies. It was, as the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald wrote, ‘a pure reversal of the first presidential debate, but on steroids‘.
The direction that the debate would take was signposted from the very beginning, with not five minutes passing before the first of many incredulous chuckles from Biden at a point Ryan had made. From this point on, in great contrast to Obama’s resigned acceptance of Mitt Romney’s assertions last week, Biden launched fully into attack dog mode; he outright refused to mince his words, labelling Ryan’s claims as ‘malarkey’ and ‘a bunch of stuff’, and that ‘not a single thing he said is accurate’. Had Paul Ryan turned up to the debate expecting to be able to speak unchallenged as Romney had, he was greatly mistaken, as Biden took on the appearance of the frustrated Democrat shouting at the television during last week’s debate.
While Republican commentators have adopted the line that Biden went ‘too far’ in his performance and that independents will have been put off by his laughing and interruptions, a CBS snap poll of undecided voters seemed to contradict this, breaking in his favour 50%-31%.
The contrast between this debate and the first presidential one could not have been greater. Joe Biden showed the passion, anger and frustration with Paul Ryan’s misrepresentations and Mitt Romney’s policies that Barack Obama simply did not last week. The conventional wisdom on this held that a bombastic display was required to offset Obama’s weak performance, but rather than Biden’s actions stemming from his boss’s poor showing, the debate performances of both the President and Vice President alike each came from the same factor: their race.
Obama was attacked from all sides in the aftermath of the first debate for his perceived weakness and passivity. MSNBC accused him of just ‘enduring the debate‘, the Guardian called him ‘nervous, distracted and unprepared‘ and even this own blog deemed him ‘lacklustre to say the least‘. However, had Obama adopted Joe Biden’s aggressive stance, taking Romney to task on his repeated misrepresentations and falsehoods as so many liberal commentators had hoped, would the fallout really have been more positive?
On the eve of the first debate, Fox News and the Daily Caller released a video of Obama speaking at Hampton University in 2007, in a speech that touched on issues such as justice, Hurricane Katrina and his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Tucker Carlson, writing about the speech, labelled it ‘racially charged and at times angry‘, and Fox News pundits such as Sean Hannity claimed it would ‘make people fearful‘. The timing of the release of the tape seemed to many to be ‘an attempt to thrust race… into the 2012 election at a particularly important moment‘. It is difficult to disagree with this analysis, and unfortunately it appears to have worked.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in his article ‘Fear of a Black President‘ recently pointed out the levels of rage, rudeness and aggression that Obama has evoked from fellow politicians over the course of his term in office, ‘but the rules of our racial politics require that Obama never respond in like fashion‘, lest he receive the dreaded label of an ‘angry black man’. This holds the key to the major difference between Obama’s performance and that of his vice president; Biden had no stereotype to avoid, no preconceived notion to dispel and no need to disguise his contempt for Ryan’s falsehoods. Republicans may have called him disrespectful for his conduct, but much more importantly undecided voters said that he had won.
I wrote last week of the first debate that Obama took on the appearance of a man who came to a fight heavily armed but declined to use any of his weapons. The vital need to avoid the ‘angry black man’ label is the reason why certain swords stayed sheathed. Had he forcefully interjected to reference the 47% video, as Biden did repeatedly against Ryan, he would have been the ‘food stamp president’ flying into a rage to protect his side in the ‘racial class war’ that Fox News is so convinced exists. He was aware that he had to exercise restraint and watch himself, because with three debates on the schedule, it is easier to get over a forgettable performance than one that scares off independents.
Kelly Virella in the Huffington Post takes all this a step further, suggesting that Romney had race on his mind in the debate also, and that this could help explain his shift towards the centre:
Most likely, Romney’s logic is that if white independent voters are given a choice between a black man and a white man with the same ideas, the white voters will choose the white man, because he makes them feel more “comfortable.”
Whether or not it is fair or accurate to accuse Romney of such a calculation, it is surely not too much of a stretch to say that he was aware of the constraints placed on Obama, and therefore more likely to take risks with his manipulations of the facts, knowing he was safe from strong rebuttal.
The vice presidential debate is unlikely to have any real effect on the campaign, considering that both candidates avoided any major errors, and that there are more presidential debates to come, but it was certainly interesting as a potential preview for 2016 as both Biden and Ryan are said to be considering presidential runs in four years time. More so than that, however, it was interesting as a sort of simulation of what might have occurred last week, had the President not been so shackled. With the next debate taking place on Tuesday and Romney pulling ahead in the polls, Obama will have to find somewhere in between his too timid first performance and Biden’s off-limits aggression if he is to take back the lost ground.