The moment the TV camera opened with a master shot of the VP debate set at the Center College of Kentucky auditorium, you knew things were going to be different. For dramatic seconds that felt like minutes, the camera held on a long shot of the back of the night’s moderator, veteran ABC journalist Martha Raddatz.
Raddatz, who currently serves as the network's Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent, is moderating because she has spent more time in the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields than either Joe Biden or Paul Ryan. Later, in the debate, her gritty experience will power her skepticism when their answers flunk the smell test.
Then you notice the two empty chairs in front of her desk. The two debaters, VP Joe Biden and VP candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, enter from opposite sides of the stage, meet behind the chairs in front of Raddatz’s desk, smile courteously, shake hands, exchange niceties, then turn and sit down, facing Ms. Raddatz.
The camera angle shifts. At last we see her face, a portrait that speak volumes about who is in charge on this night. The message: watch it, boys! The faces of Biden and Ryan clearly indicate they get it.
For a few seconds Biden and Ryan look like two actors auditioning for the VP role of in the latest Aaron Sorkin political drama; or maybe two high school kids called into the principal’s office, trying not to look nervous (well, maybe one kid and his father). Raddatz recites the ground rules. Both nod. The game begins. VP Biden makes an opening statement.
It’s quickly obvious, for reasons, political, psychological, and theatrical, this is not going to be your father’s VP debate. It will be a whole other show:
1. Ryan comes to the debate with the wind at his back. The consensus of shocked opinion is that Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, trounced President Obama in the first debate and erstwhile foot-in-mouth Romney is now deemed a formidable debater and worthy candidate.
Or, conversely, it was Obama’s anemic, listless performance that lost him the debate, not Romney’s dramatic, stylistic shift in assertiveness, sharpness and blunt specificity. Obama was simply unable to find a plan B to counter Romney’s unexpected, adrenalized and assertive plan B persona.
2. In either case, Biden comes to the debate playing catch-up for the ticket. He has to win — or at least not lose. His weapons are his passion for “the fight,” his age and experience, and his professional working class values image. These have to offset the expected fruits of Paul Ryan’s wonk credentials and his cool, likable unflappability. Biden has to throw Ryan off his game, push him out of his policy details and number-crunching comfort zones, and also call him out as soon as possible, when he’s molesting the truth.
In effect, we have role reversal: Biden has to play a liberal neo-Romney to Ryan’s more alert and articulate, conservative Obama.
3. The psychology of space. The dynamics of space may have been critical in this debate. From two dimensions: First is the physical space between the debaters. Second is the space between the debaters and the moderator.
How close you are to someone and the degree to which you enter their body buffer zone, or personal space, makes it easier or harder to inhibit or express yourself, in both positive and negative ways.
Research has indicated, as in Stanley Milgrim’s obedience-to-authority studies, that the closer one is physically to an authority figure, the more difficult it is to disobey them. Romney, and eventually, Obama, found it fairly easy to ignore Jim Lehrer’s “Your time has expired” announcements. Lehrer was at least 10 feet way from each debater, whereas Biden and Ryan were no more than three feet away from Martha Raddatz. Her ability to control the flow of conversation and to cut off or intrude and change topics was light years beyond Lehrer’s.
Raddatz’s non-verbal and facial cues—approving, disapproving, even quizzical—were much more visible and, likely, harder to ignore than those sent across psychological and physical space by Lehrer.
Biden and Ryan sat in close proximity to each other, maybe 18 inches apart. They could easily turn and see the whites of each other’s eyes. (Of course, no spatial help was needed to see the whites of Joe Biden’s teeth).
Biden's more animated face, forceful objections and interjections may have thrown Ryan off his game on occasion. These sorts of missteps occurred when Ryan was discussing the advisability of drawing down the Afghanistan surge troops on a date-certain or asserting that the White House was not listening to its military advisers. In both instances Joe zinged the accuracy of Ryan's assertions.
On the reverse side of the coin, it may have been easier for Ryan to zing Biden about his own verbal gaffes after Joe brought up the infamous videotaped poll-damaging comments by Romney about the “47 percent of Americans feeling entitled ...” It may have been easier because the close proximity made it easy for Biden to see the twinkle in Ryan’s eye, and that 'forgive me this gotcha,' but I just had to' go there' smile on his lips.
4. Visual space and the TV Camera. In first Presidential Debate, the heavy use of the split-screen format hurt Obama’s presidential image while it helped the project the image of strength by Romney. The feeling was that Romney talked and Obama listened and scribbled.
No such one-way exchange of talking points and power posturing characterized the VP debate. A split-screen was barely noticeable. The camera stayed with a fairly tight frame of Ryan and Biden, with periodic close-ups on one or the other speaker. Both men appeared in control of the use of body language and other non-verbal modes of communication (finger pointing, waving arms, rolling eyes), and rendering immediate judgments of the veracity of each other’s statements.
5. Sitting in the camera frame beside Ryan, VP Joe Biden never showed the fatigue or disinterest that was so apparent with Obama in Debate 1. He exuded the animation and confidence that has become his trademark.
6. From the starting shot to the closing bell, Joe Biden showed strength of purpose, a fixing of eyes and a setting of jaw, much like the self-presentation of Mitt Romney during his debate. In Romney’s case, though, this assertive confidence grew more pronounced as Romney tracked Obama's weakness. He smelled the blood in the water.
On the other hand, Rep. Ryan used camera close-up time in his closing statements to the best advantage, making concise, forceful, concluding statements while Biden seemed to run out of gas and closed with a platter of platitudes and promises.
In the end, who won the debate? In some sense, everybody won. Martha Raddatz may be seen as the new role model for future moderators. The new credo: Be prepared and be prepared to moderate like a verb, not an adjective. ***
As for the candidates, each did what they came to do—reassure their base—executed within a debate format that felt more real, in both style and substance, than most recent political set pieces.
And by whatever criteria the candidates, their supporters and the undecideds judge the process and outcome, the family smiles and hugs at the end seemed authentic. Their affections were not affectations, they spoke more truth than some cheerily forced post-debate psychodramas.
***UPDATE Candy Crowley tried but eventually lost much control of floor-roaming debaters. I still believe the stationary, side-by-side format would work better, even with the town hall setting. Hard to grandstand when your sitting; even hard to raise voices and squabble. Most of the walking up to questioners is posturing anyhow and it allows candidates to praise the question and then not answer it.