Friday, October 12, 2012

The problem with letting Joe be Joe

After the first debate, the Democratic base was moaning and crying out for a more aggressive demeanor from the Obama/Biden team. Well, they got that last night. But the problem was that it was Biden being the aggressive one. And by letting Joe be Joe, they got a storyline that is distracting from their message. He smirked, interrupted, and laughed his way through the debate. The RNC is reporting that Biden interrupted Ryan 82 times during the 90 minute debate while Ryan interrupted Biden six times. So Biden came off as condescending and insulting.

That demeanor might play very well with the Democratic base and, at least on Twitter, they were energized and very happy to see Biden take the fight to Ryan. But at this point in the election, Obama shouldn't be playing to his base. He needs to get that small percentage of voters who are undecided. And Biden's demeanor was such a turnoff that I don't see his bringing in many of that group over to his side. I suspect that Biden's behavior would be especially unappealing to undecided women.

On substance, impartial observers might score the debate a draw and the Obama team needed more than a draw. However, I predict that a lot of the post-debate conversation will be about Biden's demeanor rather than the substance of what he had to say. That was certainly the response on Twitter from even mainstream reporters. Even liberal late-night comedians will not be able to ignore Biden's smirks and interruptions. And that will become the basic storyline coming out of this debate just as Gore's obnoxious sighs were the story out of the first 2000 debate. And that is not a beneficial comparison for Biden yet that is the comparison being made today.

The RNC is doing their bit to feed that perceptions of Biden's performance with this ad.
As Gallup has reported, vice presidential debates don't move the public very much, even after perhaps the most memorable vice presidential debate of 1988 when Lloyd Bentsen put Quayle down by saying "You're no Jack Kennedy."

But it doesn't help Obama to have four-to-five days of discussion of Biden's demeanor instead of the substance of each man's arguments. And on Tuesday, Romney and Obama will meet in a townhall debate. If Obama takes heart from liberal reaction to Biden's performance and emulates the aggressive interruptions during the townhall, that would play poorly. The perception will be that earnest Americans are asking questions of the two candidates and want to hear their responses, not overbearing interruptions. And such behavior would put an end to whatever likability advantage that Obama might have. The campaign could allow Joe to be Joe last night, but it would be a big mistake to let Barack be Joe Tuesday night.