Most of the analysis of Thursday’s vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan focused on what might be termed the optics of the evening: How civil the candidates were to one another (not very), how many interruptions there were (a lot), and how frequently dismissive laughter was used as a rhetorical mode (often).
The general thrust of the commentary, both by pundits and by the “focus group” members they interviewed, was that there was an unseemly quality to it. Decorum was violated, generally by Vice President Biden. The pundits tended to concede that such breaches of etiquette would play well with the red meat party bases but they decried them even so as violations of decorum.
That kind of analysis only demonstrates how deeply the political class, including the political media, is trapped in superficiality. Here’s a post-debate reality check.
1. As has been noted by greater minds, politics ain’t beanbag. Neither is governance. If you want to test how somebody might do in the crucible of negotiations with the Russians, the Middle East or the Chinese, rough ’em up a little and see how they react.
2. In the context of the above, debate moderators are artifices who perform little in the way of a useful role. When the next president sits down with whoever is in charge in Pakistan, there won’t be a moderator present to keep the discussion on point. The process of informing voters regarding the relative merits of either candidate in a nationally televised debate may well be better served by locking the two candidates alone in a room, turning on the cameras, turning up the microphones and sitting back to watch what ensues.
3. The vice presidential debate particularly is a show more than it is a campaign centerpiece. Nobody’s voting for Barack Obama because of Joe Biden, and relatively few will go for Mitt Romney because he picked Paul Ryan. This election is about the headliners.