The Veep Debate: Who Will Have The Last Laugh?
Style and substance are critical elements for success in debates, as most of us in the communications business know. The Veep debate offered us a bit of laboratory on these subjects.
In Vice President Joe Biden, you have a seasoned politico and the consummate retail politician. The challenger, Congressman Paul Ryan is a youthful firebrand (he was four when Mr. Biden was elected to the Senate) and a policy wonk. Also consider Mr. Biden’s passion vs. Mr. Ryan’s cool intellect. Of course, Mr. Biden’s tendency to say “interesting” things loomed large. The Veep debate had all the makings for great political theater. I wasn’t disappointed.
While I won’t call the winner of the debate (again, many others will do that far better than me), I will take a look at some of the aspects that struck me.
Style. Much has been made of Mr. Biden’s laughing, smiling, and smirking during the debate, which seemed to start right from the beginning. Some believed that it was disrespectful while others noted that it was inappropriate given the gravity of the issues being discussed. Mr. Biden was criticized for lacking impulse control. As the debate was televised making use of split screens, it was somewhat distracting, perhaps that was the purpose. Maybe he was trying to rattle his youthful challenger.
I suspect the Vice President was using his facial expressions to deliver subliminal messages. Some years back, I served on a jury for a criminal case. During the assistant DA’s summation, the defense attorney was clearly in view of the jurors and was making faces and grimacing as if to convey the message: Where is this guy getting this stuff? Was Veep Biden doing the same?
The importance of nonverbal communications should never be underestimated; however, going over the top may make one less likable and detract from the message. In short, style may overwhelm substance.
Appearances Count. Historians of political debates may look for comparisons between the Veep debate and the Presidential debate between then Vice President Richard Nixon and then Senator Jack Kennedy. On television, Kennedy looked youthful and vigorous while Mr. Nixon looked pale (he refused makeup) and somewhat dark given his “five o’clock shadow.” Research indicated that television viewers gave that debate to Kennedy while those who listened to the debate on radio scored it for Nixon.
I’m wondering how people would grade this debate on the same basis, particularly in light of Mr. Biden’s antics.
Which Choir Are We Preaching To? In the wake of President Obama’s lackluster performance in his debate, the party faithful was somewhat downcast. I’m sure Mr. Biden knew this and was well aware of the need to re-energize his base. He brought up Governor Romney’s remark about 47% not voting for him a number of times, something the President did not do during his debate. He was clearly on the attack and interrupted Congressman Ryan many times – I fault the moderator for allowing this happen repeatedly; Martha Raddatz should have exerted more control over the proceedings.
For his part, Congressman Ryan was playing for the independents and was interested in maintaining his team’s momentum. He presented a solid case for why his ticket was a viable alternative to the Obama team. In addition, he served to “humanize” Governor Romney with stories about his charitable endeavors.
Key Line. Clearly, the line of the evening belonged to Congressman Ryan when, in response to VP Biden’s reference to Governor Romney’s 47% comment, he said: “Sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” Of course that was a less-than-veiled reference to the Veep’s penchant for his off-the-cuff remarks.
Do debates matter? Many think not. Also, many believe that the electorate votes for the top of the ticket – not the VP and that such debates are even less important. I disagree, perhaps because I’m a political junkie. I also enjoy good theater.
Published: October 14, 2012 By: