I begin to think I'm not a good reader of debates. While not looking at commentary, I was afraid that Biden would be laughed off the national stage. He shouted nonstop until his voice gave out; he grimaced far too much and failed to look at Ryan when confronting him (though I may have been misled in that by the C-Span split screen; when I switched to PBS he seemed more natural in this regard), he interrupted incessantly, and I thought he was often incoherent on domestic policy (though generally effective on foreign), failing to answer Ryan's allegations systematically and jumbling a bunch of not-fully-articulated assertions together. Ryan, on the other hand, struck me as methodical, systematic, unruffled and precise -- never mind that his characterizations of Obama administration policies -- and Romney's -- were wildly misleading.
Toward the end, Biden was structurally shut out of rebutting a concentrated and wholly fallacious and infuriating indictment -- that Obama failed in bipartisanship, that he blew up yearly deficits when in fact he reduced them modestly, that he raised taxes on the middle class, that Obamacare was causing people to lose their employer-provided insurance, that Medicare Advantage was being savaged. Which leads me to the moderator, Martha Raddatz: she's getting universal raves, but I found her over-assertive, very frustrating in the way she cut off debate to change topics. Perhaps moderators can't win: partisans, thirsting for perfect rebuttals, always want another round, yet if the moderators let exchanges go on too long they get savaged for not asserting control.
Perhaps too my craving for perfect systematic rebuttal is insatiable, and perhaps I don't appreciate aggression enough. Biden clearly went in with a mission to compensate for Obama's passivity by going on the offensive, and he did land some hammer blows: on voucherizing Medicare, on the impossibility of paying for 20% marginal income tax rate cuts by closing loopholes for the wealthy (though he was not clear as he might have been on this), on Ryan seeking stimulus funds (though that was a diversion; I would have preferred a more substantive defense of the stimulus), on Ryan voting for Bush's budget-busters, and on Ryan-Romney savaging Obama foreign policies -- withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, the sanctions regime against Iran -- that they essentially agree with. All that's not nothing, right?
In his convention speech, I thought Biden came across like a ham actor, and that perception persisted in the debate, until he got hoarser and quieter at the end. Maybe a personal disaffinity for his affect threw my judgment off.
p.s. Regarding my own discordant readings, I'm coming round to think that Sullivan was right about Obama's debacle, and that I was wrong in thinking it in large part a media phenomenon. John Sides cites some devastating polling showing the extent to which the debate damaged voters' perceptions of a range of leadership qualities in Obama, while boosting their perception of Romney's. The charts Sides posts are the most depressing data points I've seen since the debate. Terrifying, frankly. Obama had better repair the damage next time out.
p.p.s.. I'm reminded, on a look through Sully's live-blog, that I did think Biden aced the "what would you tell that solider disgusted by our dirty campaigning" question. He reached the actual question in layers that were masterful in their way: a) our government's #1 obligation is to the soldiers; b) the soldier should ask himself which side is fighting for the middle class; c) yes, the fight can get ugly, but the worst of the ugliness comes from the flood of outside money enabled by Citizens United. I was holding my breath waiting for him to get to that last point.
p.p.p.s. Re my morning post on the "most important thing Biden can do," i.e., make concrete just how devastating Ryan's budget cuts would be: he did do it, rather briefly and sloppily, but he did tick off several essential programs that would be devastated, a message reinforced by his also rather sloppy case that Ryan would destroy Medicare and wanted to do the same to Social Security. And in retrospect, the most important thing Biden could -- and did -- do was go on the offensive generally.
p.p.p.p.s. One more thing I'll say for Biden is that he's adaptable. In '08, it was essential that he not appear to aggressive or patronizing to Palin, and he didn't. Tonight, it was essential that he redress Obama's passivity by being an attack dog, and he slipped wholly into that role.