The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

That “whoosh” you may have heard last night was a collective sigh of relief, as Democrats across the country watched their vice-presidential candidate come out swinging. After President Obama’s low-energy performance during the first presidential debate, Democrats were itching for a show of strength from their ticket, and Joe Biden did not disappoint. But this morning, you may be hearing a different noise—a buzz of commentators asking, “Did he go too far?”

Both Biden and his challenger, Paul Ryan, landed some clean punches during the debate. Ryan was articulate and earnest, projecting a winning style that made his candidacy credible. But Joe stole the show, and it’s his performance that you are likely to remember weeks after the event has passed. Here’s why:

Authenticity

Both candidates had moments of authenticity, as well as moments when they clearly were reciting a pre-written script. Ryan, for example, clearly believes his position on the budget, and was able to explain it forcefully. At other times—when he told the story of Romney helping a family at Christmastime, or when he delivered his closing remarks—he sounded as if he were reading lines that someone else had scripted for him. The giveaway: The rhythms of his sentences changed.

Biden offered up some memorized verses of his own, such as when he recited Obama’s foreign policy successes, or when he tripped over facts and figures at various points in the debate. But when he spoke from his heart, he showed an ability to connect with an audience that was reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s terrific performance during the convention.

Take, for example, Biden’s explanation of his pro-choice stance and the role that his Catholic faith plays in his life, which you can watch here:

He uses an understated tone, a measured pace, and an air of thoughtfulness as he explains that, while he himself believes that life begins at conception, he will not impose that belief on others.

Here’s another forceful Biden moment, where he attacks Romney’s economic policies:

Whether you agree with him or not, you can tell that absolutely believes in every word that he says. He is full of conviction, and that tone goes a long way in verbal persuasion. He catches the ear with the use of repetition (“Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility.”). And he grabs your attention by injecting his personality and sense of humor into the discussion (“[T]hey talk about the Great Recession as if it fell out of the sky, like, ‘Oh my goodness, where did it come from?’”).

Mastery of Facts

A basic truism of verbal persuasion: You will be more credible if you master the facts. Biden’s knowledge of foreign policy is deep, and some of his strongest debate moments came during his explanation of the conflict in the Middle East because of the ease with which he could trot out details. Watch, for example, how he concisely distinguishes Syria from Libya:

He was less credible when he claimed that the Obama administration did not know that the U.S. embassy in Libya had asked the State Department for more protection shortly before it was attacked. Perhaps he meant that the White House did not know of the request, but clearly the State Department did. His statement was also a weak point of the debate for him because it sounded defensive. Most importantly, it wasn’t even necessary to the point that he was making, which was that the intelligence community changed its assessment of the cause of the attack as it obtained additional information. Verbal persuasion requires shifting quickly through all the facts to select the ones that will make your case the best. If you digress, as Biden did here, you can muddy your message, and sometimes get into trouble.

Going Overboard?

Biden’s performance was particularly memorable during moments in which he wasn’t speaking at all. He laughed out loud at many of Paul Ryan’s answers, sometimes shaking his head in disbelief or calling his opponent’s claims “malarkey.” He seemed unable to contain himself during numerous points in the debate, interrupting Ryan to dispute a claim or correct the record:

The laughing, the head-shaking, the interrupting, and the overheated tone were overdone, very often rude. In his eagerness to inject energy into his performance, Biden sometimes stammered, tripped over his points, or laid on the incredulousness a bit too thickly.

But his supporters lapped it up, and that was the point. By any analysis, Joe Biden stopped the hand-wringing that had ensued after the first debate, and gave Democrats a reason to cheer. Biden was feisty, knowledgeable, and entertaining to watch. Various pollsters have given different answers to the question of who won the debate. But in the contest of who made the strongest, most lasting impression, Biden is the victor, hands-down.

NOTE:  Apologies for the political ad that prefaces each of these video clips.  This seems to be a new thing on YouTube, and we haven’t figured out how to embed around the ads.

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2 Responses to The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

  1. Josh H. says:

    I love reading the opinions of Bob Sayler and Molly Shadel and thoroughly enjoyed the public speaking class I took from the two of them and the course on Rhetoric taught solely by Bob Sayler. However, I disagree to the extent that Biden is said to have come across with any sense of credibility. He makes up stuff as he goes. His lies through the years are very well documented. He admitted to plagiarizing 5 pages in law school, which resulted in an “F” grade. He had to drop out of the ’88 presidential election after people realized he was plagiarizing content for his speeches. (see http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history_lesson/2008/08/the_write_stuff.html).

    Then, last night he came across as completely devoid of any respect for the setting or his opponent. And, of course he lied about voting against wars, etc.

  2. Ella C. says:

    Josh,

    Citing mistakes made over 20 years ago means absolutely nothing. Were you the same person 20 years ago that you are today? Many people are not. See Bill Clinton as a good example. If you have some solid evidence and not vague “etc.” comments that prove Mr. Biden was not credible last night, please share them with us. So far, the only person that has come across in these debates as completely devoid of credibility has been Mitt Romney.

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