hursday night, a few hundred people gathered at Katra, a trendy lounge on the Lower East Side, to watch the televised vice presidential debate, which was being held in Danville, KY. There were some media types at the event, but in the main, the crowd was the young, black professional set. Lots of suits. Lots of stylish glasses. This was very decidedly the Obama demographic. And they wanted to believe.
Last week’s bizarrely laconic debate showing by President Obama wasn’t supposed to matter that much to the poll numbers, but boy did it ever: Mitt Romney, whose campaign was in freefall before the debate, had pulled even or ahead in some polls in the days since, and Democrats were starting to panic. The stakes for the vice presidential debate suddenly got ratcheted way up, and it was Biden’s job in his showdown with Paul Ryan to stem the bleeding.
So Biden went full-on fan service. The crowd lapped up Biden’s showy, aggressive performance against Paul Ryan — people jumped up and clapped when the veep brought up Romney’s now-infamous “47 percent” comments, which Obama didn’t do — all of his annoyed interruptions, his sarcastic smiles, his dismissive head-shaking. The crowd shouted at the screen when Ryan said something they didn’t like (which was just about everything). They cheered when Biden nailed Ryan, like when he said he had letters from Ryan requesting stimulus dollars even as the Wisconsin congressman had been one of the stimulus’s most vocal critics. Biden walked right up to the line of calling Ryan a liar a few times before backing away. There was one Biden soliloquy that was borderline Clintonian in its deftness: Biden managed to weave together the tragic death of his wife and daughter, Romney’s opposition to the auto bailouts, Republican obstructionism and Romney Ryan’s vagueness on their policy details. He was feeling himself a bit, and the lounge-goers were all about it. There was hooting and hollering and some annoyed shushes from other viewers who were trying to hear. Were this a football game, these well-dressed folks sipping their cocktails would have been the people yelling into the cameras, their faces painted in the team’s colors.
So how would Biden’s act play outside of a room full of partisans? The CNN numbers marked the showdown a tie, at 48-44 in Ryan’s favor. Their post-debate panel of undecided swing voters featured several women who thought Biden was rude to Ryan. But CBS’s poll put the win pretty solidly in the Biden column at 50 to 31.
Ryan was calm and collected, and hardly embarrassed himself. He was shaky on foreign policy stuff, and he continued to avoid giving any details about how his fiscal plans might actually be feasible. He didn’t have a very high bar to clear — a bad “loss” in the VP debate would have had few repercussions for this year’s race (although it may have hurt his long-term political prospects).
The pressure was all on Biden. When Martha Raddatz, the moderator, thanked the two candidates and concluded the evening, the crowd at the lounge clapped and smiled. The vice president’s big night probably won’t change the state of the race, but he’s all anyone talked about a day later, and he gave the Democratic base something the ruminative law professor at the top of the ticket couldn’t last week: catharsis.