Leaving It All on the Field

Having slept on it, and read this morning’s ruminations from near and far, I haven’t had any blazing new insights on last night’s vice-presidential debate, but am convinced more than ever that Biden’s performance, whatever its effect on swing voters, dispelled a dark cloud over the Democratic tribe. And that’s not just because it might have interrupted Romney’s “momentum” or countered the president’s “loss” last week.

In retrospect, what dispirited an awful lot of Democrats about the first presidential debate was that it emblemized the fear that in an intense, high-stakes battle with an ascendant and radicalized conservative movement, progressive elected officials just didn’t have the willingness or ability to make a full and passionate case for their own cause. That was at the heart of criticisms not only of the president’s demeanor, but also of his many missed opportunities to rebut Romney and expose the rickety substructure of the mendacious self-presentation Moderate Mitt was attempting. And this is obviously a complaint that’s been just under the surface of mixed progressive attitudes towards Obama and many other Democratic leaders for years now.

There was none of that with Biden, although he in no way contradicted a single word Obama uttered last week. Josh Marshall probably best summed up the reaction from Democrats:

Biden made the whole Democratic argument — on policy and values and he hit Romney really everywhere Democrats wanted him to. He left nothing unsaid. You can agree with those points or not. But this was exceedingly important for recovering the damage from last week’s debate when many Obama supporters simply felt that Obama wasn’t willing or able or something to make the case Democrats around the country are hyped up to make. Why didn’t you say this? Why’d you let him get away with that?

Biden said it all. And for Democrats around the country that was extremely important….

I suspect Ryan’s equivocations and unwillingness to give details will be the day 2 and weekend stories. But the most critical point in terms of the trajectory of the debate was that Biden left it all on the field.

That was clearly the plan from the Obama campaign. But as Charlie Pierce noted in his prescient debate preview yesterday, it’s what Biden was born to do:

Joe Biden is not riven with self-doubt. Joe Biden is not exhausted by the hurly-burly of politics. Joe Biden is not burdened by the weight of events and laid low by the constant battle against know-nothing obstructionism. Joe Biden is not going to take the stage tonight and find himself wishing he were anywhere else. I mean, god be good to him, as my gran’ used to say, but Joe Biden actually likes all these silly performance pieces in which we insist he be engaged in order to stay vice-president. He revels in them. He would do ten of them a day, if he could. When I consider Joe Biden, and I look at the enthusiasm with which he throws himself into the various cataracts and torrents of hogwash that constitute our politics these days, I find myself looking at him the way I look at people who sky-dive or drive in demolition derbies. I have no idea why they do what they do, and I have absolutely no intention of doing it myself, ever, but, goddamn, do those people look like they’re having fun.

So tonight, when Biden takes the stage to debate Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from the state of Wisconsin, it is very unlikely that the debate will hinge on whether either man really wants to be there. Biden eats these kinds of things on toast, and Ryan is as ambitious as Satan.

In terms of Republican reactions to the debate, it’s important to remember that for many conservatives Paul Ryan is a long-term investment; he’s The Future. There are probably mixed feelings by now about him being on the ticket, not because it might lose, but because he’s having to hide his light under a bushel. So some solicitous observers from the Right may well be relieved that their Boy survived an important test, whether he “won” or not. It’s an added bonus that he can play the victim to the Bully Biden; self-pity is an important quality among conservatives these days, as Ryan’s predecessor as Republican vice presidential nominee can attest. Now he has a new and special bond with the underappreciated billionaire and the bishop whose flock ignores his instructions, victims as they all are.

But Biden “won” because he achieved an important objective for Democrats who were beginning to wonder if all the Romney-Ryan ticket had to do to achieve victory for the most radical major-party agenda in decades was simply to change the packaging and play the horse-race-expectations game to the hilt. Whatever ultimately happens, the dynamics have now changed, and Joe Biden deserves the credit.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.