Joe Biden, Crazy Like a Fox?

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The vice president turns in a bizarre, hammy performance against Paul Ryan -- but maybe that was what the reeling Obama campaign needed.

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DANVILLE, Kentucky -- Let's assume that Joe Biden's breathtakingly strange and boorish performance at Thursday night's vice-presidential debate was a strategy. Call it good cop-crazy cop.

Four years ago, Biden took pains to show deference and respect for Sarah Palin. Against Paul Ryan, the vice president went way out of his way to do exactly the opposite -- to belittle him, demean him, and show exactly how little he took seriously the congressman 27 years his junior. He interrupted Ryan, talked over him, met his every remark with theatrical sarcasm and incredulity. And he laughed. "I don't know what world this guy's living in," he said, as Ryan began to attempt a serious answer on Iran sanctions. As Ryan started to say the sanctions were Republicans' idea, Biden cackled loudly and cried, "Oh, God!"

Even by the self-parodic standards of Joe Biden, it was a hammed-up shtick, grating and impolite. (Later, he turned angry and hectoring, and by the end he had come around to a smooth, soothing tone.) So why would he have done such a thing? To give deflated Democrats some much-needed fire, and to dent Romney and Ryan as severely as possible, no matter how close he had to stand to the grenade. And while Ryan did an admirable job of keeping his cool against this spectacle, and getting a word in edgewise, he frequently seemed to be drowning in Biden's flurry of blows.

Two exchanges distilled the theme of the night -- Biden's ability to deflect focus from the administration's weaknesses and shower Ryan with every imaginable line of attack in a hail of blows.

First, Biden wriggled out of what should have been the toughest question, on Libya, claiming, despite State Department testimony to the contrary, that the administration hadn't known extra security was needed at the consulate where the American ambassador was recently killed. But rather than pin him down on it, Ryan got tangled in a bruising back-and-forth over whether a Romney administration would start unnecessary wars, as Biden claimed. The topic should have been an opportunity for Ryan, but he failed to maximize it and found himself essentially defending the dismally unpopular foreign policy of George W. Bush instead.

Next, in a segment that surely had liberals standing and cheering, Biden went on a lengthy tirade against Romney's comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes -- something the president never mentioned in last week's debate:

But it shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend recently in a speech in Washington said "30 percent of the American people are takers." These people are my mom and dad -- the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, "not paying any tax."

I've had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent -- it's about time they take some responsibility here. And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class we're going to level the playing field; we're going to give you a fair shot again; we are going to not repeat the mistakes we made in the past by having a different set of rules for Wall Street and Main Street, making sure that we continue to hemorrhage these tax cuts for the super wealthy.

Ryan shot back, "I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way." Biden grinned his wide, bright-white, triangular smile. "But I always say what I mean," he said. "And so does Romney."

There was plenty more where that came from. Biden nailed Ryan, gleefully, for having asked for stimulus funds for his constituents. He ridiculed Ryan's attack on "green pork." Ryan got some good shots in on Medicare, but then found himself defending privatizing Social Security after Biden turned the tables. "Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates," Ryan said. "Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy?" Biden said. "Ronald Reagan -- " Ryan began. "This is amazing," Biden grinned. Just as Republicans last week felt someone was finally taking to task the president they'd always seen as a fraud, Biden effectively channeled the left's bottled-up frustration with the Romney-Ryan argument.

I can't imagine anyone liking Joe Biden better after Thursday night. But people didn't like him all that much anyway, and he's not running for president. (For a gauge of the amount of likability the American people require in their vice president, look no further than Dick Cheney.) Biden's task was to turn the page on the president's disastrous debate last week and to throw a wrench in the suddenly-on-a-roll Romney campaign's progress. It was a lot to ask from the undercard, and much will still be required of Obama in the next presidential debate on Tuesday. But as best he could, Biden may have accomplished his kamikaze mission. His crazy antics may have been crazy like a fox.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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