What was that all about?
The inappropriate smiles, the aggressive laughs, the all but unhinged finger-pumping raging at moderator Martha Raddatz--I suppose Vice President Joe Biden could have come in with a less appropriate performance last night. I just don't know how.
Then there was the substance. The vice president's charges that Rep. Paul Ryan was lying were totally predictable and effectively answered. But, then, the Obama campaign's strategy has not been to best the Romney-Ryan ticket on facts. Instead, as I have argued elsewhere, they and their media friends regularly level charges of lying, only for the rest of us to find that Romney, Ryan, and their allies have been entirely factual and truthful and the president and his crowd flat out wrong or, at best, misleading.
No, the David Axelrod-led campaign strategy has not been to win on the issues but, in a phrase that has gained currency in this cycle, to "disqualify" the Romney-Ryan ticket. Essentially the Chicago gang has been telling the American people for months now, "Don't listen to those guys; don't pay them any mind; tune them out, turn them off; they are mean; they don't tell the truth; they aren't your kind of people."
Given the more than a hundred million dollars they have reportedly poured into this message, buying the enormous advantage in number of broadcast and cable advertising spots run, it is a wonder that Romney and Ryan can get anyone to show up at their rallies, much less the standing-room only turnouts that have become their standard.
But then again, there were signs before last week's presidential debate that the Obama-Biden campaign was shooting blanks. Still, it wasn't really clear until the president and Romney stood side-by-side on the University of Denver stage how hollow was the president's case against Romney and for his own reelection. Some have said the president had an off night in Colorado. That is spin. The Barack Obama we saw facing the governor was the same candidate we saw four years ago: strong voice, measured delivery, highly articulate. It was just that against a first rate contender, the fatuousness of his stances could not be ignored. He had no comeback when Romney injected facts and truth into the parallel universe Obama's operatives had labored to create. [Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]
Last night, Vice President Biden's task was to turn in the performance Obama supposedly had failed to deliver the week before. Well, yes, as I say, if weird laughs, inappropriate smiles shot to Raddatz and moments of unhinged fury comprise your idea of the performance that Obama should have delivered, Uncle Joe brought it all home. But the fact is that between the president's much-maligned performance of debate no. 1 and the vice president's last night, Obama was clearly stronger. Whatever his inadequacies, he didn't look bullying or deranged, as Crazy Joe did.
In contrast last night, Ryan—like Romney the week before—was cheerful, respectful, patient, factual, and persistent in presenting his brief, even when Biden was trying to harass or talk over him. Biden kept complaining about not receiving as much time as Ryan. But after the debate, the stopwatch crowd reported that he had spoken longer than his opponent. Biden's problem wasn't that he lacked time. It was that he had nothing of credible substance to say. [Take the U.S. News Poll: Was the First Presidential Debate a Game-Changer for Mitt Romney?]
His worst exchanges came on the topics that were supposedly his strengths: foreign and national security policy. For days now, it has been clear that the intelligence community and the Pentagon knew almost immediately or within hours that the attack on the Libyan consulate was a planned al Qaeda terrorist operation. The vice president's claim that the White House didn't know (even two weeks later when Obama addressed the United Nations?) raised the question: Does he believe the American people are fools?
And what was that grinned assertion, in essence, of don't worry about Iran's nuclear weapons, folks, we've got everything under control? [See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]
If last night had been a presidential debate, the game would be over. Instead, the Obama-Biden ticket merely dug the hole it was in just a little deeper. It will take the remaining presidential debates to seal their fate. But if those face-offs are like the ones we've seen last couple of weeks, the bottom could drop out of their campaign.
The amazing thing is that saying their re-election operation might fall apart is now plausible. After last week and last night, it looks as though the problem with that incredibly professional political behemoth might be that at its center are two empty suits.