If the vice-presidency, as John Nance Garner famously said, isn't worth a bucket of warm spit, then what's a vice-presidential debate worth?
As it turns out, thankfully, something more than a bucket of warm spit. Thursday night's sitdown between Vice-President Joe Biden and Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan was useful in both substance and style. It may not have changed many minds, but it clarified a lot of differences.
First, the substance. The candidates discussed a lot of foreign policy, a fair amount of economics and a few social issues. On foreign policy, Biden was clearly more comfortable and experienced, calling other national leaders by their nicknames and repeatedly -- and rightly -- asking Ryan what he and his running mate would do differently. ("We've disagreed from time to time on a few issues," was the best Ryan could do on Afghanistan.) Martha Raddatz, the debate's moderator, gamely tried to pin down both candidates on specifics of their plans to raise taxes and reduce the deficit, but made little headway.
One of the more revealing contrasts between the candidates was on abortion. Ryan was unapologetic: "I believe life begins at conception," he said, and under president Mitt Romney, the policy would be to oppose abortions with the exceptions of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. It was an admirably honest answer. Biden said he, too, accepted his church's belief about when life begins, "but I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews."
To say that Biden got the better of the argument is not to diminish the achievement of that moment: illuminating an authentic difference of opinion and approach on a matter of public import.
Of course, a debate is more than just words. It is theatrics: rolled eyes, raised eyebrows, furrowed brows, grins and smirks, even an occasional look-to-the-skies-and-throw-up-your-arms-I-can-t-believe-my-opponent-just-said-that gesture. How you feel about this stuff is largely a function of how you feel about the candidates.
Take, for instance, that word "stuff." At one point Biden complained that Ryan's view on the Middle East "was a bunch of stuff." At another point, he called out Ryan for spouting "a bunch of malarkey." By one count, he interrupted Ryan 82 times. Ryan, for his part, was polite and deferential. He created no Twitter hashtags or trending terms on Google.
We could decry these developments as inappropriate for a serious debate. Forgive us if we resist the temptation. First, serious is not a synonym for dull. Part of the art of politics is getting people to pay attention, and a little humour and theatricality can serve the cause.
Second, in debates perhaps more so than on the campaign trial, style matters. Biden's avuncular persona --whether you find it endearing or condescending -- is useful information for an undecided voter. So is Ryan's wonky persona -- whether you find it refreshing or hard-hearted.
It may be that Biden was playing not to undecided voters, of which there are astonishingly few, but to Democrats depressed by President Barack Obama's desultory performance a week earlier. If that was Biden's job, he succeeded. What he did not do -- nor did Ryan, with his competent and respectful presentation -- is change the dynamics of the race in the way that Romney-Obama debate did.
Which brings us back to the central point of the night: This was a vice-presidential debate. Like the vice presidency itself, a vice-presidential debate is forever destined to matter less than the presidential one.
As Biden and Ryan showed, however, it is possible to have a debate between two ideologically antagonistic candidates that is informative, spirited, civil and even entertaining. We hope their running mates -- especially the president -- were taking notes for their next meeting on Tuesaday.