US Vice President Joe Biden (left) and his challenger Republican Congressman Paul Ryan
Not that watching US presidential and vice-presidential debates outside the country is any materially different but the experience is clearly devoid of bilious partisanship. Suddenly the stakes seem so much less outside because they are so distant. One also feels ideologically less vested.
I watched the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney debate in Mumbai and the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate in Ahmedabad. In both cases the outcome mattered little to me personally quite like it would have had I watched them in America because one is generally not perturbed by choreographed fulminations or unexpected foibles of politicians.
On the specific question of how I viewed the Biden-Ryan debate, the vice president was like an ageing lion awakened from his midafternoon slumber in the African savannah by a lone antelope. The big cat decides to maul the antelope not because he is hungry but because he has been disturbed and because he can. Much has been said about Biden’s teeth-show as he grinned, giggled and grimaced. I thought that made him look authentic and often rightly exasperated. The notion that such debates should be sanitized of all human emotions and gestures is absurd. I would prefer if the debaters were even more animated. In contrast, Ryan mostly smirked and nodded sideways in disapproval.
Biden always looks like someone who is not particularly troubled by the prospects of defeat or embarrassment. He does not take measured steps, nor does he keep his tone measured. He is not governed by debate etiquette such as not interrupting his opponent. The vice president gave no quarter to his younger opponent. Ryan did his best to negotiate the mauling he was receiving but in the end, as it happens in the lion-antelope encounter in the African savannah, he was left quite a bit wounded. If Biden did not finish the job, it was because he was not that hungry.
The closest Biden came to finishing Ryan was over the question of economic stimulus. When Ryan spoke of Biden presiding over “ninety billion dollars in green pork to campaign contributors and special-interest groups”, the vice president displayed more than irritation.
The VP: I love my friend here. I—I’m not allowed to show letters, but go on our Web site. He sent me two letters saying, “By the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?” We sent millions of dollars.
Martha Raddatz (the moderator to Ryan): You did ask for stimulus money, correct?
Biden jumps in: Sure he did. By the way…
Ryan: On two occasions we—we—we advocated for constituents who were applying for grants. That’s what we do. We do that for all constituents who are…
Biden: I love that. I love that. This was such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying—writes the Department of Energy a letter saying, “The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.” His words. And now he’s sitting here looking at me. And by the way, that program, again, investigated. What the Congress said was it was a model. Less than four-tenths of one per cent waste or fraud in the program. And all this talk about cronyism. They investigated and investigated, did not find one single piece of evidence. I wish he would just tell—be a little more candid.
There is something particularly hurtful about “And now he’s sitting here looking at me.”
Many thought Ryan did well to hold his own. I thought Biden occasionally let him out of sporadic realization about debate etiquette and perhaps the fact that his rival was 27 year his junior. Biden is 69 and Ryan 42.