Here’s what we learned at tonight’s vice presidential debate: Not much. Biden grinned wide and laughed condescendingly. Ryan gave us his best sorrowful eyes and talked real slow. There was some convoluted disagreement about Medicare, and taxes, and abortion, a few zingers, and a lot of shouty crosstalk. Early on, Biden promised to be "very specific," and mostly wasn't. Ryan rattled off numbers and anecdotes, but failed to connect them in a meaningful way. Both sides were pretty much okay with war, if that’s what it takes to keep America strong, and were willing to talk over each other — loudly if necessary — in order to prove it.
But mostly what we heard from the sidekicks on both presidential tickets was an echo, not an argument: Biden thought that President Obama had done a pretty good job, and didn’t deserve blame for the continuing mediocre state of the economy. Ryan thought the administration had blown it, and that Romney was “uniquely qualified” to do a better job, though he barely touched on what might make Romney unique. The candidates offered lots of details, but little useful information.
It’s not unusual, of course, for political candidates to say nothing new, to simply talk their books and refuse to say anything interesting. But vice presidential candidates are somewhat uniquely handicapped — forced to talk up top of the ticket rather than straightforwardly defend their own ideas.
What we had, then, was a vicious proxy debate — a growl-off between two campaign attack dogs. They both drew some blood, for sure, but I’m not sure either made a convincing case for their masters. Biden’s case for Obama was that it wasn’t really his fault that the administration’s policies haven’t produced the desired results, and that Romney isn’t trustworthy. Ryan’s case for Romney was that Obama’s policies have failed, and that’s that. Both sides will likely claim victory, and most of what was said will be forgotten by next Tuesday's presidential debate. What we heard, to borrow one Bidenism, was a bunch of stuff. But, to borrow another vice presidential descriptor, most it was malarkey.