Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

Point/Counterpoint: Who Won the Vice Presidential Debate?

Professor of Law and Finance, George Nation

John Nance Garner famously, perhaps apocryphally, described the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm spit” and sometimes worse. Johnny Carson said, “the great thing about a democracy is that anyone can grow up to be president, and those who don’t grow up can be vice president.” The vice presidential debate was last night and the obvious question is why do we care?

The answer is that the vice president is only a heartbeat away from being president.  That’s why we watch, that’s why I watched, because one of these men could become president.  Unfortunately, Garner’s description, with only slight modification, could easily be applied to this debate.  It wasn’t worth a bucket of lukewarm spit! The problem was that both candidates treated the event as a vice presidential debate.  That is, as part of the campaign, rather than what it should be which is a presidential debate.  No one cares, for good reason, who is vice president. They care about who may be president if worse comes to worst.  What voters needed from the debate was a look at the type of president each candidate would be if heaven forbid that becomes necessary.

Most of what the voters got was each candidate campaigning for the top of the ticket.  There are two more presidential debates for that; voters don’t need more second hand. Moderator Martha Raddatz did try to get the candidates to reveal the type of leader they would be, but met with limited success.

What could a voter glean about presidential leadership from last night’s event?  Joe Biden would be a loud, lecturing, shrill, smirking, frustrated, interrupting and exasperated leader whose fallback debating position is “trust me.”  He didn’t only lecture his ”friend,” Congressman Ryan; he lectured the moderator and even the Catholic Church (why are you suing over Obama Care?  Joe has no idea!).

Moreover, when he wasn’t shrill he was bombastic and such an insider (he and Bibi, that’s the Israeli leader for you non-insiders, talk all the time) and so experienced that he could not be bothered to explain his points rationally. In short, he seemed full of malarkey. Yea right, we should just trust him.

Paul Ryan, in contrast to Vice President Biden’s ranting, finger waging, lecturer-in-chief, seemed downright presidential, which is comforting. He does seem a little green to me, but he is a person who can keep his cool and his head and explain his ideas and arguments.  He was certainly refreshing alongside Joe Biden.  So in the end I found out what I wanted to know. If I had to choose one of these men to be president I would chose Ryan.

Political Scientist Saladin Ambar


While it’s true that these vice presidential debates don’t necessarily amount to too much, Biden and the Democrats needed to change the story line away from Obama’s performance in the first debate. The Vice President did that, and for that I believe he wins this debate.

Biden demonstrated probably the one thing that he had to, and it was the same thing I believe Paul Ryan fell short in: Demonstrating that he could act as president in the event of an emergency.  If something catastrophic happens, the public clearly shouldn’t be deterred that Biden could step in to do the job.

Ryan didn’t perform poorly. He was more deferential and respectful. He didn’t interrupt. He didn’t recede in the face of a long term politician like Biden. I think I would want Ryan to take my daughter to the prom. He would bring her back by 11 and win the congeniality award. But he also didn’t perform at the same level as Biden.  Ryan has to cross the threshold of appearing presidential.

At the end of the day, the American people don’t care as much about etiquette as they do whether you have the fortitude and knowledge of the issues and the world to be president. Biden had what Nixon referred to as a “tour-de-force” understanding of foreign policy. Nixon wasn’t all that nice. And we elected him twice.

I don’t think Biden’s laughter and eye-rolling achieved what Al Gore did with his sighing during the 2000 debates. It wasn’t the kind of body language that conveyed he was smarter than Ryan. I believe it was Biden thinking Ryan was not being honest. I don’t think it was personally disrespectful of Ryan.

At the end of the day, is Paul Ryan a nice guy? I have no reason to think otherwise. But this is more about who will carry the nuclear football and I think hands down that goes to Biden. It’s no longer about niceties.

In the next debate I think we’ll see more sparks fly. Obama has no choice. But he must do it in his own way or it will seem inauthentic. With each week that passes we are closer to the election and fewer voters are left to be won over. Romney will be ready for questions about the 47 percent comment. What Obama should do is explain Romney’s duplicitousness. The plan to label him too conservative will not work. The American people don’t believe that.  On the campaign trail, the Democrats should be asking, “Which Mitt Romney is that.”

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Friday, October 12, 2012

share this story: