The Vice-Presidential debate was a lot more fun than the first Presidential one.  Both candidates came out swinging and got in some good punches.  Ryan was good on Afghanistan, on Obama as a speaker not a doer, and on the basic premise of the Republican campaign, that the economy isn’t getting better fast enough.  Biden was good on just about everything, once he got over his Gore-like tendency to create a sideshow of smiles, groans and eye-rolls when Ryan was talking. 

The pundits mostly said that it was a draw, or that Biden had a slight edge, but once again I have a contrarian view.  Here’s what really happened.  Biden took over the debate.  He dominated both Ryan and the moderator almost from the start.  If the Vice President can be criticized, it’s because taking over a debate as forcefully as he did involves risks.  You can come across as too forceful, or as not being fair to your opponent.  Biden risked both those outcomes, but no doubt he was coached that he had to counteract the weak impression the President gave in his first debate.  In any case, dominate he did, and in 2 particular ways.

Biden spoke from his heart.  Calculated or not, Biden’s display of anger beginning about halfway through gave his performance an authenticity that Ryan’s lacked.  An old pro like Biden may well be able to call up anger on cue, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we saw a real emotion, coming consistently through in both words and body language.  And that means we were able to get the measure of the man and believe him to be real. 

Ryan’s more calculated, buttoned-down performance did not serve him well.  Because we got no similar display of emotion from Ryan, he came across as a technocrat with not as much skin in the game.  So we don’t know that we can trust him.  Trust and credibility are the two qualities audiences look for from debates like this.  Most candidates prepare far too much data, as did both Romney and Obama, and the result is that, while they may impress us as credible, we don’t trust them. 

Ryan’s voice was higher and more nasal.  In all presidential contests since we have recordings, the deeper-voiced, more resonant candidate has won.  Biden had the better voice by far, and Ryan’s comparatively whiny, nasal voice did not sound like a leader’s or inspire trust. 

Biden sat taller than Ryan.  It’s not fair, but it’s reality.  One of the ways that people establish dominance is by being the tallest person in the room.  Biden sat taller in his chair, and Ryan ducked his head, giving an unmistakable pecking order to the debate.  Biden was in charge; Ryan played second fiddle. 

Biden’s facial performance risked sabotaging the rest of his good work.  Biden’s grinning, moaning, and eye-rolling risked looking childish and unfair to his opponent.  Had he continued throughout the debate, all the rest of his advantages would have been nullified.  But fortunately for the Democrats, when Joe started to get angry, he focused, and cut back on the side-show antics.  If he could ever discipline himself to sit with quiet dignity while the other candidate spoke, he could be a very forceful debater indeed.  His lack of discipline continues to be a problem. 

Both candidates spoke more clearly and forcefully than either of the two presidential candidates.  I’m sure that’s in part because they’re not the main act, but nonetheless credit is due to both for debating strongly and well under the incredible glare of the television lights and an audience of millions. 


Quite frankly, I’ve really enjoyed the reaction I got to my earlier blog post on weasel words.   Hopefully, you’ll find this follow up useful.  Obviously, we absolutely have to be on guard against these fundamentally useless filler words in our speaking and writing.  Having said that, sometimes you need to weasel-word just a bit.  Basically, that’s because we’re all human, and don’t always want to stand behind what we say.  But if you think about it, at this point in time, we really need to speed up our communications and make them literally more efficient. 

With thanks to everyone who actually contributed to this blog, literally word by word: Lynn Strang, Dave, Brian Lange, Terry Lavelle, Geetesh Bajaj, Michael Gowin, Roz Bennetts and Maureen Anderson. 


  1. I don’t know what debate you were watching, but I didn’t see Biden cut back on his smirks, sneers, and smiles halfway through. He continued with that all the way to the end and practically ignored his “friend” Ryan when he sincerely thanked him for the debate. He came off as very smug and disrespectful. So, that said, I think he DID nullify anything positive he may have accomplished.

  2. I agree with you about Biden’s “sideshow”. Early on I even saw him mouthing ‘Not True’ to the camera or to the moderator (hard to tell which) which Ryan was speaking and I thought ‘How rude!’ But you say he needs more discipline to “sit with quiet dignity”, yet doesn’t that goes against the passion you admire in him?

  3. Hi, Susan —
    Yes, you’re getting at exactly the tension I saw in him — passion leading to interruptions, and that undercuts the good that the passion does. We’re all human, aren’t we?

  4. Nick,
    This is one of the best analyses of the VP debate I’ve seen. I started off troubled by Biden’s tics — I was actually yelling “stop smiling” at the screen — but by the end, I thought he was in control and quite powerful. Ryan came across as competent, for sure, but also wonky and a tad untrustworthy.
    One thing I have to wonder — with all the coaching these guys get, how do they still end up making these basic mistakes like interrupting, slumping in chairs, not looking at opponent, etc. — is this just human nature trumping all coaching?

  5. Hi, Warren —
    Thanks for your comment. I’ve signed up for your blog, “a more beautiful question” which looks really interesting.
    The answer to your question is bad coaching, and the ego of certain politicians, combine to create an imperfect monster:-)

  6. To follow up with what Warren said, yes, it’s amazing that with all the coaching these guys must receive, they still behave as they do during their debates and speeches. That said, it begs the question: was Biden coached to act that way (to counteract Obamas’s anemic perforance)?). If not, and it’s just Biden being “human,” as Nick says, then I just can’t find that acceptable. I mean, here’s the Vice President of the United States on national television squirming in his chair like a two year old! Granted, Ryan’s performance was mediocre at best, but at least he remained dignified and respectful.

  7. Hi, Dave —
    I think there’s little doubt that Biden was coached to be aggressive, but how he interpreted those instructions probably came out in the moment. Remember, until you’ve sat under TV lights with 50 million people watching, you don’t know what pressure is. Both of these guys have a right to their humanity, in both the good and bad ways it comes out. And I didn’t find Ryan’s fake smile either dignified or respectful. I thought it looked insincere.
    But these things are tribal, Dave! If you’re inclined to the Republican tribe, the studies show, you prefer restraint and respond to “glass half empty” approaches. If you’re Democratic, you prefer less restraint and respond to “glass half full” approaches. We don’t see these debates in the same way because we come in with different sets of blinders.

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