The vice presidential debate provided a test case about the way Americans think about civility. In terms of substance, both Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan had their moments of strength. Ryan was strong on foreign policy, while Biden squirmed and threw the intelligence community under the bus about administration lies about the Benghazi attack. Biden delivered class warfare body blows about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe.
But the main difference between the two wasn’t so much their competing liberal and conservative ideas and arguments. It was the blatant disrespect shown by Biden for his opponent. Biden giggled, smirked and mugged throughout the debate almost every time Ryan spoke. He also interrupted the Republican almost at will without moderator Martha Raddatz saying a word to call him to order. It may be that Democrats were so dismayed by President Obama’s passive performance in his debate last week that Biden was urged to be more aggressive. But what he did wasn’t merely aggressive; he was openly rude. That may have encouraged the Democratic base, but it remains to be seen whether that is the sort of thing most Americans are comfortable with.
Democratic spinners will say he is a “happy warrior,” that his nastiness and aggressiveness bloodied the Republicans and that it doesn’t matter that the way he did it was embarrassing. They may have a point. People probably won’t decide not to vote for Obama because they think the giggling, smirking and interrupting was beneath the dignity of the office he holds. If Biden’s job was simply to rally the base and attack his opponents, then his arrogant condescension will help the Democrats regain their momentum after a week in which they’ve lost a lot of ground.
But it is also possible that a lot of those Americans who saw the debate, even those who are Democrats but especially independents and undecided voters, will not think much of a vice president of the United States acting more like a schoolyard bully than a statesman.
Many Democrats will applaud Biden’s buffoonery and falsely claim that it was no different from Romney’s demeanor last week even though there is no possible comparison. Republicans can console themselves that while Ryan did seem a little nervous at times, he wasn’t intimidated. Nor did Biden succeed in painting Ryan as the monster that the Democrats claim him to be. Ryan also passed the plausibility threshold as a potential president because of his strong knowledge of foreign policy.
The bottom line here is that neither side won or lost. But it is also possible that Biden’s misbehavior will be remembered with distaste long after this election is decided.