Who won the vice presidential debate? Martha Raddatz—and the voters

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News
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Moderator Martha Raddatz watches as Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin participate in the vice presidential debate at Centre College, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, in Danville, Ky. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

Well, that debate produced as clear a winner as any I’ve seen—a winner who was composed, tough-minded, clear, eloquent.

But enough of Martha Raddatz.

Actually, not enough about Martha Raddatz. What America saw Thursday night was the model of how a political debate should be conducted, with a format that encourages direct interaction, and a moderator who can summon details to inform a question.

I know, I know, the question before the house is, “Who won?” OK: In purely atmospheric terms, Joe Biden’s smile now threatens to replace the Mona Lisa’s as the single most analyzed facial expression in history. (I have noted elsewhere that there are times when Biden’s smile is only slightly less unsettling than the one Jack Nicholson flashed in “The Shining.”)

In purely political terms, the debate was likely a better night for the Democrats, if only in providing them a dose of enthusiasm and passion that was missing in action last week.

More broadly, I think Vice President Biden had the better of the exchanges—particularly on taxes, where the Romney-Ryan ticket’s embrace of tax cuts for all is radically out of step with where the country is. Biden was also able to prod Paul Ryan sharply on where specifically the Republican ticket parts ways with the Obama administration on foreign policy, other than rhetorically. But Ryan’s indictment of our current economic position had potency; more broadly, he demonstrated that one major goal of the Obama campaign—to paint Ryan as the advance guard of a Radical Right Republican Regiment—has not taken hold.

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And while I tend to lean more toward the CBS flash poll result of a clear Biden victory than the CNN flash poll of a very slight Ryan win, I think the default analysis of most vice-presidential debates will hold: This did not change the basic terrain.

Which is why I want to go back to Ms. Raddatz. Here was a moderator who let the candidates engage each other, but not until she provided specific frameworks for her questions, with facts (and occasional personal observances) designed to force the candidates to move beyond their stump speeches. It didn’t always succeed, because it is well nigh impossible to push a candidate away from words and phrases they have spoken hundreds of times, but it worked well enough. It was particularly effective on the abortion question, where she asked them to answer in the context of their shared Catholic faith.

And her final inquiry—based on a conversation with a veteran dismayed by the tone of the campaign—was an admirable effort to test the candidates’ willingness to actually ponder and reflect on the question.

There’s a knee-jerk reaction to most debates: to deplore them as joint interviews, devoid of real substance. What Martha Raddatz did Thursday night was to demonstrate that there’s a different, better way.