Hold it, I’m confused. I watched all of the vice presidential debate last night, and someone did not show up. Vice President Joe Biden was there—how could one miss him, with all the grinning, grunting, interrupting, and sneering. But where was the Ayn Rand-worshiping, rape-redefining, fanatically exercising zealot who wants to throw grandmothers off of cliffs and whose budget plan is, according to the president, "thinly veiled Social Darwinism" that is "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility"? That Paul Ryan was nowhere to be found.
What America saw instead was a young and likable and knowledgeable conservative worried about the current trajectory of fiscal, monetary, foreign, and social policy. Where Biden harrumphed, Ryan calmly litigated President Obama's failed record. Twice in eight days, the caricatures against which President Barack Obama and Biden are purporting to run have been exposed as grotesque exaggerations. The liberal attempt to frighten America with the illusory specter of an extremist Republican ticket dissolved on first contact with, well, the actual ticket. The reality principle asserted itself once again. We have an open race.
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Perceptions matter. Why did 67 million people watch the first debate? One reason may have been that Americans, open to an alternative to the incumbent, wanted to know who the Republican nominee actually was. They only had vague knowledge of Mitt Romney going into the Denver bout—and their impression was not favorable.
What they knew was largely limited to the messages of $217 million in negative advertising from Obama and his allies: Romney was rich, secretive, out of touch, paying little in taxes, hiding his tax returns, stashing money in the Cayman Islands, singing out of tune, shipping jobs overseas with little thought of the lives he affected, dismissing out of hand 47 percent of the country, in favor of raising middle-class taxes and health-care costs for seniors, and waging a "war on women" with Todd Akin to "turn back the clock" on women’s rights.
The stories told about Romney in the media were no more flattering. Casual consumers of the news would have learned that the former governor of Massachusetts once bullied a child at his prep school; had catered to the most extreme wing of his party in pursuit of the GOP nomination; had insulted the highly sensitive and excitable Brits on the eve of the London Olympics; was gaffe-prone; had jumped the gun in his response to the attacks in Benghazi and Cairo; was either micro-managing or had little control over his campaign; was changing strategy on the fly; and was such a hopeless loser that the election basically was over. Obama had it in the bag. How could he not? Romney was trash—wealthy, radical, belligerent refuse.
Imagine the surprise when Romney took the stage and revealed himself to be nothing like the cartoon that had been shown again and again to the American electorate. This unmediated Romney was approachable, warm, in command of facts and logic, fluent, direct, and appropriate to the office of the presidency. He claimed the mantle of bipartisanship and pledged to reform taxes and entitlements, reduce the deficit, and cut alternative energy handouts instead of education. He seemed eager to tackle the manifold problems of American democracy.
Obama on the other hand was peevish, tired, frustrated, absent. He regurgitated his lines from the campaign trail. His grand plan for a second term is hiring more teachers. He kept casting aspersions on Romney’s ideas and made accusations that Romney simply said were not true. The television split screen showed the president smirking as his challenger spoke, as if Obama found it almost humorous that Romney was so utterly different from the way he, Romney, had been portrayed. Even before the debate was over, though, it was clear that this was no laughing matter.
Seventy million people watched as the Romney mannequin in which the Obama campaign had invested so much money burst apart at the seams. For much of the year Obama and his team had been remarkably successful at creating and maintaining the perception that the Republican ticket was unworthy of power. The conceit was widespread but paper-thin. All that was necessary to puncture it was 35-or-so minutes of Romney addressing the president as an equal.
So committed are liberals to the notion that Romney and Ryan stand at the vanguard of a militant libertarian cabal that they haven’t a clue what to do when confronted by an actual conservative. The difference between Obama during the debate and Obama on the stump the next day was instructive. In contrast to his listless and weak performance against Romney, once on the trail, the New York Times reported, the president "went straight at the challenger, arguing forcefully that Mr. Romney’s moderate words masked extreme conservative policies."
What explained Obama’s recovered willingness to attack? He was back where he feels secure: alone on the stage, addressing a fevered crowd, performing a soliloquy of his own construction. Freed from the constraint of having to address a living, breathing opponent in real time, Obama could return to setting aflame the Republican straw men he carries around in his head.
In this case an additional piece of hay was added to the president’s battered Romney doll. Obama ascribed his failure on stage to the fact that he had not expected Romney to lie so effectively; he had not anticipated Romney to mask his extremism behind a "moderate" cloak. But here too the president was jousting with an apparition. Romney’s "lies" were nothing more than statements of fact in conflict with and inconvenient to liberals. And the "moderate" Romney is no different from the man who has been "pitching that plan for an entire year." Romney’s domestic policy message, his "five point plan," has been remarkably, even frustratingly, consistent over time. What it differs from is the bloodthirsty, avaricious, and ambitious demon with whom Obama has been fictively arguing.
Thus Biden had a heavy burden going into Thursday's vice presidential debate. The left was outraged at Obama's failure. It was up to the vice president to calm their fears and regain their enthusiasm. His clownish and angry performance was catnip to the Democratic base. But he also ran the risk of alienating independents and swing voters who are distressed at the economic condition of the country and are looking for specific solutions to the twin crises of jobs and deficits. For Biden's performance, like Obama's, was grounded in the idea that Republicans like Romney and Ryan are monsters—an idea that could not withstand examination in the light of Ryan's strong, reasoned, confident showing.
Romney and Ryan have found a political opportunity in the gulf separating liberal perceptions of conservatives from the lived reality of conservatives. All they needed to do was show independent and undecided voters who they are, demonstrate that they are not so scary after all, and emphasize the administration's lackluster record. Which is what they did.
Obama and Biden should know better. Spend all your time boxing shadows, and there's a decent chance that, when faced with a real opponent, you will be knocked out.