A clear win for Biden, say Democrats, no question about it. A clear win for Ryan, say Republicans, that's obvious. As for this low-information undecided non-voter, I give it to Biden, but not by much. He was better than I expected. Forceful and impassioned, but controlled. Disciplined without seeming inhibited or any less Biden-like. Through energy and animation, he commanded the conversation--and didn't spoil it by saying anything stupid. Yes, the constant incredulous smiling was a mistake, as if to imply that Ryan was incapable of saying anything that merited a serious response. Most of what Ryan said did merit a serious response (at least, undecided voters presumably thought so); laughing at him was therefore not just rude but also tactically inept. On the other hand, if Biden's main job was to restore morale in the Democratic base, laughing condescension served a purpose. Anyway, Biden's engagement, such a contrast with Obama's dismal performance last week, was impressive, and I thought it made Ryan look by comparison a little cold and smug.
Biden also had the best line of the debate, when he asked listeners whether they trusted Romney and Ryan with Medicare. I think that's a very good question, even though (as it happens) I also think there's a lot to be said for vouchers done right. Ryan's earlier and now-superseded plans, which would have held down the vouchers' value far too aggressively, are relevant to the question of trust. I was most impressed that Biden didn't cheat on this: When he criticized Ryan's first plan, he didn't pretend he was attacking the current one. The first plan matters because it tells you about Ryan's intentions--about what he would do if he could. And Ryan had no answer. He squirmed under this line of attack. (Contrast this with Obama's assault on Romney's supposed $5 trillion tax cut. That was a distortion, because the tax package isn't in the aggregate a $5 trillion cut. Romney therefore deflected the attack easily--without having to explain how his tax-rate reductions would be financed, which was the real point of vulnerability. Now and then in politics, honesty pays and spin can be self-defeating.)
I give it to Biden but Ryan did well too. His demeanor, I suppose, is a matter of taste. (Spot poll: I like it, my wife detests it.) He didn't look small or inconsequential, despite being so much the younger of the two. He did nothing to call into question Romney's judgement in choosing him for the ticket. He was in command of his material. He was respectful of his opponent--gracious at the end, a very nice touch--and above all respectful of voters. He looked like a politician going places, and deserving to.
By the way, I don't share the view that the moderator, Martha Raddatz, did a better job than Jim Lehrer. I've seen much worse, but she wasn't as good as Lehrer. A debate should be a debate, not a double-headed interview. She was in the way too much. She was too interested in her own ideas about what was important. Her questions were too complicated and confining. (The one at the end on "human strengths" made me cringe. Classic what-an-interesting-moderator-I-am nonsense.) In a presidential or vice-presidential debate, the moderator's goal should be to disappear.