Last night's performance by Biden – capering, giggling, near-maniacal opera buffa – was targeted in one place: a dispirited, demoralized Democratic base on the edge of panic.
Paul Ryan was businesslike, steady, and on-point. He hit solid doubles all night, and that's all he needed to do. If he'd been as amped and manic as Biden, it would have been a political and imaging disaster.
Biden aimed to throw the Obama base a lifeline. He fed the Kos Kidz desperate need to see some fight, but at the cost of his remaining (and mostly notional) dignity. If you want a gibbering, snorting, mumbling clown with a rictus-grin locked on his mug a heartbeat away from controlling America's nuclear arsenal, Joe Biden's your guy.
Ryan aimed to meet the standard of gravitas and presence, to demonstrate to the fabled female/suburban/swing/moderate voters that he's not a scary granny-killing Terminator sent from the future to throw seniors into the snowbank. He had to demonstrate steadiness, stature and knowledge. Done and done.
The conventional wisdom this morning is that the debate was a tie. That conventional wisdom is (as is so often the case) dead wrong. Biden played to his base, trying to dig Obama out of the hole he's been trapped in since last week's debate trainwreck. Ryan played to the center, to the swing and to the late-engagers. The post-hoc coverage won't factor into their decisions: the pictures and Biden's mugging, drunk-uncle affect will. (Also, Biden opened several new, Costco-scale cans of worms for the Administration on the Libya scandal.)
In short, Biden did nothing to reset the race, and the edge of panic is still there in the Obama campaign.
When edifices – particularly political edifices built around the myth and personality of one man – collapse, they collapse suddenly. The center does not hold. The man dragged from the spider hole isn't a dictator, he's a prisoner. The Master of the Universe hedge fund manager who's really just a Ponzi schemer gets booked at Rikers like the rest of 'em. The spell cast by power, once broken, is hard to restore.
(And no, I'm not comparing Obama to infamous war criminals. I'm examining the way people view organizations centered on a leader, not on an idea, and why they're ultimately fragile.)
In the case of the Obama Personality Cult, we believed the Maximum Leader was more brilliant, more charismatic and more skillful than our own candidate. Sure, he was wrong on the issues, a disaster from start to finish, but we still felt a sense of intimidation. That changed last week, as I outlined here.
In the 2012 election, as long as Obama was inevitable, he was inevitable. Beyond the pundits, there was the emerging belief that the macro polling models of guys like Nate Silver could not be wrong. The basic message was, “Obama's certainty of reelection is so large entirely new domains of mathematics are required to state it properly.”
The arguments for Romney's election were always framed as, “Well, IF he wins Florida and IF he wins Virginia and IF Hillary is an Al Qaida sleeper agent and IF Biden is caught in a Delaware hotel room with a Guatemalan pan flute band and a non-consenting farm animal...then maybe there's a fraction of a chance.”
The political media declared Mitt Romney dead for thirty long days between the end of the convention and the debate. But somewhere in those thirty days, Mitt Romney was born again. Hard.
You can see the fear in the Obama campaign now, as they careen from message to message, flailing, desperate for something – anything – to stick.
You can see their gyros tumbling as they slew from Big Bird to abortion to “Mitt Romney is a lying liar liarpants McLiar” to the walking disaster that is Stephanie Cutter every time she opens her mouth to the remarkable, bizarre interview the Three Divas (Axelrod, Plouffe and Messina, obviously) gave Mark Halperin this week. Their campaign is out of control, and they know it.
They know how much they lost after the last debate. They know how many millions of television advertising dollars were flushed down the drain as Obama broke down in the last debate and as Mitt Romney introduced himself to the country. They know how, after the debate, Romney surged to a lead or a tie in the swing states. They know that there are a handful of states now that were solidly in Obama's camp that are wavering, teetering and suddenly uncertain.
Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Michigan have moved in the RCP averages from “Leans Obama” to “Toss-up”... today's polls are about to move a number of other states into the “Lean Romney” column. Florida will likely move there in the coming days. It's not just the swing states, and they know it.
The swing states matter, but when any of the states of Obama's “Blue Wall” flips in the polls to “Lean Romney,” the cascade effect will be psychologically devastating. For months, there were two underlying predicates for an Obama victory: first, that Obama was inevitable, and second, that Mitt Romney's path to 270 electoral votes was narrow and highly constrained.
Today, it's Obama's path that seems to be narrowing.
Their panic tastes delicious.
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