Veep debate analysis: Obama team still in the game with good field position, and other sports analogies

Debates are, among other things, potentially good political theater. I would only have added the word “potentially” after last week’s snore-fest between President Obama and Governor Romney showed that debates don’t have to interesting at all.

But tonight’s debate between Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan proved to be everything last week’s effort wasn’t. I don’t care who you are, it was a damn good show in which all three people on the stage exceeded expectations.

Biden, to the disappointment of Republicans, was free of major gaffes, and full of passion, spit, and vinegar.

Ryan, to the disappointment of Democrats, didn’t curl up in a tight little sniveling ball of inexperience. He hung in there and held his own, and I applaud his parents, who, in the words of a friend of mine, generously allowed Ryan to stay up late tonight and participate.

Debate moderator Martha Raddatz, who was bound to look pretty good after following such an easy act from last week’s dismal performance by Jim Lehrer, did her job extraordinarily well under tough circumstances.

The toughest circumstance came in a package named Joe Biden, who suited up for the game, left it all on the field, and probably at least four other football metaphors. It was clear that Biden’s memo from his boss was “I screwed up and let Romney get away with every mischaracterization imaginable – it’s your job this week to do my job from last week.”

Republicans will complain that Biden interrupted Ryan too much. Democrats will counter that Biden only interrupted when Ryan’s misrepresentations needed to be pointed out, and as such, Biden cannot be faulted if Ryan cannot utter a single sentence without a misrepresentation. Both complaints have a lot of merit, but Biden’s performance wins out – because Biden made the compelling case for the boss that the boss failed to make last week.

For Ryan’s part, his weakest moments were, admittedly, not his fault. The weak moments came when Raddatz pressed Ryan for the specifics of Romney’s plans. Ryan wasn’t stumped the Ryan is stupid – Ryan was stumped because Romney’s specifics don’t exist. It was most noticeable in the discussion on tax reform, but also quite noticeable in the health care discussion. When the dust settles from tonight’s debate, observant voters may well conclude that Paul Ryan’s biggest shortcoming is Mitt Romney.

But to be sure, it is clear from tonight that Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin. Democrats should consider him armed and dangerous, and should have from the start.

The debate may well not be a net gain for Democrats, but make no mistake – important gains were made nevertheless. Biden stopped much of the bleeding from last week. There will be voters who are undoubtedly turned off by Biden’s aggressive approach. There are other voters who aren’t satisfied, because a President ultimately must make a case for himself, not a case made by his number two. But there will be a lot of voters who will like the fact that Biden’s aggressive approach was in aggressively defending the middle class, in aggressively correcting Republican misrepresentations, and in aggressively making a passionate stand for the policies of the Obama administration.

But much of Obama’s gains from the Veep debate will be Democratic gains. A despondent Democrat is a worthless Democrat, and too many Democrats completely freaked out and irrationally over-reacted to Obama’s listless performance last week. They needed the morale boost of Biden’s performance. Their enthusiasm may not show up immediately, but it will show up, just as their lack of enthusiasm following the last debate showed up in the polls.

While tonight wasn’t a home run for the Obama team, Biden’s clutch performance ensures that the Obama team is still in the game, and in the swing states, remains in good field position.