Joe Biden Goes Out in a Blaze of Glory

The man from Scranton was rude. He was sneering. He was contemptuous of Paul Ryan. And he was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

If this was the last campaign debate of Joe Biden’s political career—and it probably was—then damn: The Man From Scranton went out in a big ol’ blaze of glory.

He sneered at Paul Ryan’s statements. He interrupted repeatedly. He kept calling Paul Ryan “my friend” when it was clear that Ryan is not at all his friend. He used terms like “malarkey” and “bunch of stuff.” He acted righteously angry about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment. He attacked, then attacked again, and then he attacked some more. When this vice presidential debate is remembered  by historians—or, hell, even a week from now—it’ll be remembered entirely for Joe Biden’s attitude, vigor and slashing style.

Paul Ryan? He faded into a barely visible blur of beige: The biggest impression he made on Wednesday was with his old workout photos. During the debate itself, Ryan was steady, seemingly competent, and utterly forgettable.

Who knows how it played with independent voters? They may have been turned off by Biden’s machismo—Lord knows that Republicans hated it—or they may have thrilled to the display of alpha-maleness. But one thing’s for sure: Democratic voters loved it.

Obama’s supporters are not nearly so dispirited this morning as they were after the first presidential debate a week ago, and maybe all Biden had to do to “win” this thing was to calm down panicky Dems. If so: Mission accomplished.

He was a big effing deal.

You’ll notice I’m talking almost entirely about style here, and there’s a reason for that: Everybody pretty much knows the substance of the politics anyway. We didn’t hear anything all that surprising or new during Thursday’s debate, and we didn’t expect to. What we wanted to see was who could put on a better show. Would Ryan look ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency? (To the extent he made an impression: Sure. Why not?) Would Biden defend Barack Obama’s presidency more forcefully than Obama did? (Yup.)

If it was his last political debate, then Biden put on a hell of a show.

Because he sometimes says impolitic or unexpected things—and because, quite frankly, he likes to hear himself talk—Republicans tend to treat Biden like he’s an idiot. They’re wrong to underestimate him: Biden was every bit as much in command of governing details Thursday night as Ryan, who carries a reputation as a wonk.

But he has one other advantage matched by no one else in politics, save Bill Clinton: He’s a regular dude. We all know the story—he grew up in Scranton, got elected to the Senate, took the train home to Delaware every night. He’s one of the last politicians who earned their office by visiting all the diners, kissing all the babies, and generally working harder to know everybody who needed to be known. His kind has been replaced by a generation of strivers who had their careers planned out at age 13, got good SAT scores, went to Ivy League schools, and never really worried about their future.

That gives him a flavor other politicians lack. And the flavor was on full display Thursday night.

“I don’t say what I don’t mean,” he said near the end of the debate. “I never say what I won’t do. My whole career has been devoted to leveling the playing field for middle class people.”

It sounded like more than platitudes. It sounded like he meant it.

Biden is 69. He could run for the White House in four years, but Democrats don’t seem eager to watch him run. So Thursday night might’ve been the last hurrah for a politician who has loomed so large for so long.

If so, it was fun to watch. Joe Biden being Joe Biden is still one of the best shows in politics.