Not long ago I saw a bumper sticker that said "If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck." That catchy bit of wit came back to me last night as I watched the cage match that was the Vice Presidential debate. If you were expecting an illuminating, thoughtful discourse on policy and issues... you should have known better. This was almost guaranteed to be a brawl as soon as last week's Presidential debate concluded. And on that level, it didn't disappoint. Part blood sport, part theater of the absurd, part reality show, the debate directed a 10 billion candlepower spotlight on the den of dysfunction that is Washington DC today. It was beautiful. So indulge me a moment while I sink into a tired sports metaphor.
Both candidates answered the opening bell with a flurry of punches, some of which actually landed. They kept punching after the bell too, forcing referee -- er, moderator -- Martha Raddatz to break them up on a regular basis. Ryan gave a game effort; better than I expected he would. But he was punching above his weight class, and Biden -- no doubt relishing being let off the leash he was kept on four years ago -- knew it. Ryan's only real hope was to outlast his older opponent, to stick and move and slip the worst of the punches looking for an opening to land the haymaker. It never materialized. And while Ryan was able to connect with a few stinging jabs, Biden cut him off from his corner and kept him in the middle of the ring, exposed.
He also didn't back away from his opponent's weaknesses. He didn't try to "rise above" using the 47% comment, and he didn't give the Romney-Ryan ticket a pass on the Etch-a-Sketch Campaign. When responding to Ryan's comments on Iran and how he perceived President Obama ignoring (Israeli Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden delivered a left-right combination to the body, saying "War should always be the absolute last resort. That's why these crippling sanctions, which Bibi Netanyahu says we should continue, which -- if I'm not mistaken -- Governor Romney says we -- we should continue. I may be mistaken. He changes his mind so often, I could be wrong." In one breath he highlighted the administration's support of and co-operation with Israel and (at no extra charge) the Sybilesque nature of the top guy on the GOP ticket.
But Biden's counterpunching wasn't perfect. He missed an opportunity to pummel Ryan over his "$90 billion in green pork" comment, though Ryan slipped that one in at the bell. He didn't press Ryan on his plan to circumvent the UN on Syria, or explore the chilling possibilities of unilateral action by the US in that conflict. When Ryan parroted the party line about Romney's "record of working with a Democratic majority" as governor of Massachusetts, he left Biden an opening to point out that then-governor Romney's idea of "bipartisan co-operation" was to veto 844 bills in his term, while the legislature negated over 700 of those vetoes -- many unanimously. Sounds more like a blood feud than bipartisanship to me.
On the last point, though, he rebounded. Late in the debate Ryan invoked the name of the Latter Day Republican Deity, Ronald Reagan, pontificating on his ability to work across party lines to get things done. It wasn't a bad tactical move, but he forgot two important points that Biden reminded him of in his response. "First of all, I was there when Ronald Reagan tax breaks -- he gave specifics of what he was going to cut, number one, in terms of tax expenditures." Another potent combination. First he pointed out that one of those members of Congress Ryan was using as an example was sitting across the table from him. Second, he reprised the Obama campaign's central point that the Romney-Ryan plan is a deep dark secret primarily comprised of broad talking points with no visible means of support.
But possibly the most effective thing the Vice President did in those 90 minutes was channel the frustration all of us feel into a highly visible, sometimes volatile display. As I watched him, I could see myself. He projected my disbelief, my frustration, my -- yes -- my anger on that debate stage. He connected. Some critics have said he went too far, that he was "disrespectful". (Peggy Noonan, for one, seems to be finding her inner Ann Romney this morning.) But respect was by and large heaved cheerfully over the side of our political process years ago. What passes for respect in Washington today is nothing more than a thin veneer of civility no more genuine than the fake wood trim on a 1975 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser.
The consensus seems to be Biden by a split decision. Did he need to win by a knockout? History hasn't made up its mind yet. But I for one can't wait to see what happens next.