No More Mr. Nice Guy: The Obama Campaign Remixed
Vice President Joe Biden came out swinging in the vice presidential debate Thursday night as he chose to pull no punches and debate aggressively. Trying to counterbalance Barack Obama’s weak and listless performance from the first presidential debate a week before, Biden rudely interrupted Paul Ryan over eighty times, arrogantly laughed and smirked openly at his statements, and labeled his arguments “a bunch of malarkey.”
The vice president’s boorish manners quickly came under fire from conservative pundits, but his strategy successfully rattled Ryan, who nervously downed four glasses of water and allowed the game of verbal chess to end in a stalemate. Despite Biden’s surprising performance, however, he cannot get his hopes up that the outcome will help Obama in any substantial way. The vice presidential debate is an entertaining sideshow, but ultimately holds little sway for the general election.
Indeed, a Rasmussen poll on October 11 reported that only 18% of likely U.S. voters considered the vice presidential debate very important to their vote. An analysis of Gallup trends revealed that the chances of the vice presidential debate having a major impact on the presidential race were small. “None of the eight vice presidential debates occurring from 1976 to 2008 appears to have meaningfully altered voter preferences,” Gallup reported. “Debates themselves rarely influence voters' pre-existing views.”
This analysis indicates a general lack of interest by the American public for the office of the vice presidency. Aside from his slim chance at presidential succession, the vice president’s duties are few and far from glamorous. Since supermajority rules diminished the vice president’s actions as a tiebreaker in the Senate, his role mainly involves acting as a head of state at foreign dignitaries’ funerals. FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, is famously quoted as describing the office of the vice president as “wholly unimportant” and “a no man's land somewhere between the legislative and executive branch.”
However, Biden’s performance on Thursday was far from wholly unimportant. He did have a small impact on swaying undecided voters. On October 11, a CBS snap poll of uncommitted voters gave Biden a 50-31 win, and an NBC focus group of undecided voters showed him taking a 5-1 win. He also slightly softened the blow of Obama’s disappointing performance in the first presidential debate. Biden proved to America that Obama’s campaign was not imploding.
In one of the most memorable moments of the night, Biden attacked Romney’s filmed statement at a fundraiser when Romney said that 47% of Americans believed they were “victims” who could not “take personal responsibility for their lives.” Romney formerly stood by his statement, but later admitted it was “completely wrong.” Was Romney flip-flopping? Ryan tried to brush off the attack, pointing to Biden’s own gaffe-prone record, saying, “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”
At another point in the evening, Ryan brought up John F. Kennedy as an example of a president who lowered taxes and spurred economic growth. “Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy?” Biden quipped, referencing the 1988 vice presidential debate. In that debate, Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen criticized Republican Dan Quayle for comparing himself to John F. Kennedy. Bentsen, questioning whether Quayle was adequately prepared to serve as vice president because of his limited political experience, famously stated, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.” Though Quayle and George Bush would go on to win the election, Bentsen’s words haunted Quayle for the rest of his political career. Biden’s quip tried to emphasize Biden's many years of political experience and paint Ryan in contrast as youthful and naïve.
Though these talking points from the debate have remained front-page news over the past few days, they are quickly fading into the background in anticipation of Obama and Romney taking center stage tonight. Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, and Ryan is not Romney. Voters are undoubtedly more concerned with the top of the ticket. As the last presidential election demonstrated, John McCain could not coast to victory off the popularity of his running mate, Sarah Palin.
This is not to say that the vice presidential debate is unimportant. If any bodily harm were to befall President Obama or Mitt Romney (if he is elected), their vice presidents would suddenly be thrust into the spotlight and forced to assume the office of the presidency. However, if voters trust Obama and Romney enough to vote them into office, surely they will trust Romney and Obama’s choice of vice presidential candidate as well. Thus, in the next two presidential debates, both candidates must focus on continuing to build trust with the American people. Romney now has the momentum with his last debate win, but Obama still has a shot at redemption tonight. If he follows Biden’s lead of aggressive debating (though toning down Biden’s rudeness and maintaining a presidential air of cordiality), he may still have a chance to regain the momentum he lost after his poor showing in the first presidential debate.
Nicole Bianchi is a senior Politics, Philosophy & Economics major. She is the opinion editor and webmaster at The Empire State Tribune. Follow her on Twitter.