Don’t fool yourself – political debates in this day and age aren’t about finding the best solution to the country’s problems. The political debates of today provide campaigns with a chance to affect the narrative of the race through a theatrical presentation of the candidates.
No matter how hard we wish that the debates could be calm, rational analyses of each side’s platforms, it’s apparently become more important that the campaigns use them to tell a story.
Of course, there is plenty of opportunity for constructive discussion of key issues, and we saw some great examples of that in Thursday’s VP debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan.
But if they are smart about it, a campaign will walk into a debate knowing exactly what their candidate will say and how they will act in order to project a specific image for the audience.
Take, for example, the Oct. 3 debate between President Barrack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
Romney won because he projected confidence, power and intelligence. It didn’t matter that he interrupted the president and the moderator frequently, told Jim Lehrer that neither his nor Big Bird’s jobs were worth borrowing money from China, insisted on having the last word when it wasn’t his turn, and made statements that were completely contradictory to his message throughout the summer.
When compared with the president’s dry presentation and utter lack of enthusiasm, Romney appeared the more appropriate candidate for the highest office in the country.
That’s why Biden won his debate against Ryan on Thursday.
It wasn’t about getting to the bottom of their bosses’ plans for the economy or foreign affairs. For Biden, it was about proving that Democrats could still be tough guys and restoring faith among the Democratic base. It wasn’t about debating Ryan or Romney— it was about debating the narrative of the race as it stood, and to that end he delivered.
Biden’s behavior during the debate was essentially an attempt to one-up Romney. He used many of the same tactics as the governor – interrupting, calling out the moderator, insisting on the last word – but took them further.
On top of that, he used his skills in improvisation and his working-man credibility to give him an edge and connect better to middle-class voters.
As far as substance was concerned, it was probably close to a draw. Ryan hit hard and Biden did a decent job of defending Obama’s record while attacking his opponent’s talking points.
But look at Biden’s performance as a debate against the narrative from the previous week, a narrative that said that the democrats are weak and Romney is the more presidential candidate. If he was debating that image, then he absolutely eviscerated it, and Paul Ryan was merely caught in the crossfire.
To quote Bill Maher’s tweet during the debate, it looked like there was “an old man beating a child on my tv.” Biden’s “alpha male” behavior showed the audience that the Democrats are just as capable of fighting for their platform as the Republicans, contradicting the narrative of the previous week.
Now that Biden has saved the Democrat’s image from the brink, it will be up to Obama and Romney to carry the torch for the rest of the season. As essential as these narratives have become in this race, it’s unlikely that Biden’s performance will provide the last twist in the story.
And for those of you debate purists out there who just want a calm, rational discussion, remember that there’s always next year.