Communication. Did these guys really talk to each other? Any notable facial expressions? One photo making the rounds, of course, is Biden throwing up his arms in apparent disbelief; there were also plenty of comments about him grinning or giggling. Pullum says, "I do think the two men were speaking each other's language; Ryan even emphasized that he came from exactly the same sort of town as Biden, and of course they both have a Catholic upbringing." But while they're speaking the same language, they might not be talking. "It was just two men tussling for chances to hurl sound bites at each other," says Pullum. "For the pleasure of hearing a point argued out so that a position could be evaluated, a political pseudo-debate like this is always going to be a disappointment."
He adds, "Essentially all of the clash was in the claims, I think, not in style or syntax or word choice. Though one thing differed: Biden really seemed to be laughing at Ryan. His broad grin was unmistakably genuine. He actually thought Ryan's malarkey was so off base that it was funny. And since a man who is genuinely grinning and laughing always seems somewhat appealing, Biden seemed to gain on likability."
Speaking Style. It was noted that there was a big tone shift among both men—their voices getting gentler and lower—when they started to talk about "social issues," i.e. abortion. Anything else? Who did better? "Both men are accomplished speakers; there is no question about Ryan's fluency and ability to sound convincing, especially in the closing statement, which was classical political boilerplate, but excellently delivered," says Pullum. "Biden had one major searching-for-the-right-word moment—in fact it went on for five or six seconds of umms and errs, and it hardly seems right to call it a moment. He also cut himself off now and then, not bothering to finish a sentence but just leaping to the next one. So of the two, Ryan was probably the more fluent (though that's an impression: there are ways of measuring things like degree of disfluency)."
Overall Take. While I found the debate more energetic and therefore compelling than the last one (I found the speaking set-up somehow better, perhaps in part due to Martha Raddatz, and there were far fewer ums and uhs as well as, in general, more smooth conversation), I'll agree with Pullum that I'm not sure they were really talking to each other.
Pullum found it more depressing than I did: "This wasn't really a debate, because no set thesis was under discussion and neither man followed out the thoughts or arguments of the other," he says. "Given half a chance, or even a quarter of a chance, they would ignore the question that had been put to them and would start spouting pre-scripted party platform stuff. Ryan especially did this. Asked about how his personal qualities would equip him for his role, he would just plunge into some prattle about how the Obama regime just wasn't the right way to get the economy to recover. When you listen to two high-quality philosophers debating, you hear them clarifying each other's positions to make sure they are not misrepresenting them, and then probing for weaknesses in the argument in a way that depends on the exact way in which it was framed. Not so in the kind of pseudo-debating we had here."
Then again, it's politics, right? And coming out of this debate, those voters who've already decided their side are just as adamant that that their side won as they were going in. Perhaps, the point is, we never should have expected—never can expect—real philosophical debate in one of these things. Sometimes politics does all seem like just a bunch of stuff. I'm holding out hope, though.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.