Election 2020

FLASHBACK: Here's How the Media Reacted to Biden's 'Ballroom Brawl' Debate Performance with Paul Ryan in 2012

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The prevailing media narrative following the first presidential debate between President Trump and Joe Biden has been that President Trump was rude and constantly interrupted Joe Biden. It was insulting to the viewers and unpresidential, they say.

Oh, I’m sorry, have we forgotten Joe Biden’s debate with Paul Ryan back in 2012? I haven’t.

I remember that debate well. It was a week after Mitt Romney destroyed Barack Obama in the first presidential debate, and Democrats weren’t interested in cordiality. They wanted a fighter on the debate stage, and Joe Biden delivered. He was rude and constantly interrupting Paul Ryan, who was barely able to get a word in during his time to speak.

Did the media universally condemn Biden’s behavior? Was there discussion about debate rules changes by the Commission on Presidential Debates? Nope and nope. But instead, the media characterized Biden’s rude and unbecoming behavior as coming to Obama’s rescue following his terrible debate performance a week earlier.

The New York Times wrote, “It was Mr. Biden who sought to quiet the rising clamor among Democrats that the president was not assertive enough with Mr. Romney at their debate last week in Denver. A day after Mr. Obama conceded he was ‘too polite,’ Mr. Biden showed no hesitation in hectoring, heckling and interrupting his challenger.”

Throughout the evening, Mr. Biden made maximum use of the split-screen shots that were judged to have harmed Mr. Obama a week earlier, when he was frequently shown looking down at his lectern as Mr. Romney harshly criticized him. And whenever Mr. Ryan spoke, Mr. Biden claimed his half of the screen as his own, practically winking at the audience at home as he stage-laughed at the assertions Mr. Ryan was making or shook his head in disbelief, grinning broadly.

His interruptions were strategic, intended to raise questions about the Republican ticket. When Mr. Ryan attacked the administration’s stimulus program, Mr. Biden pointed out that Mr. Ryan had sent him a letter, requesting money for his Congressional district in Wisconsin.

Another New York Times article said that “For Mr. Biden especially, the night was his chance to relive past debates and unleash his inner barroom brawler. He had to be contained and courteous when he debated Sarah Palin four years ago, lest he look like a bully. This time he let loose. And unlike the courtly Mr. Bentsen in 1988, Mr. Biden turned his temperature up, singeing the young man across the table with patronizing grins, but mostly withering retorts. His interruptive barrage was as relentless as his silent mugging for the camera.”

For USA Today, Biden’s rudeness was merely open for debate. “Biden was energetic, engaged and combative in a way that Obama failed to be in his debate with Republican Mitt Romney in Denver last week. The open question may be whether he came across as convincing or rude.” Later, it was claimed that “Biden’s supercharged performance was aimed at stemming the momentum the Republican ticket has been riding since the last debate.”

David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times didn’t deny that Joe Biden was rude. But he argued the strategy worked. “Vice President Joe Biden was all smirks, smiles, laughs, sharp elbows and impolite interruptions in his debate with the No. 2 guy on the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan. It is always a risky tactic to let Joe be Joe, but it seems to have paid off.” He also described the result as invigorating the Democratic base: “After President Obama’s passive, lackluster response to Mitt Romney’s energetic assault during the first presidential debate, demoralized Democrats were praying that Biden would come out swinging at Ryan,” he explained. “They got what they wanted and, as a result, Democrats should be reinvigorated as the closing days of the 2012 campaign tick away.”

Horsey noted that Biden’s aggressive style did “less harm” than Obama’s “politeness” during the previous debate.

But here was an interesting observation:

Ryan put in a good performance that pleased Republicans. Biden kept him from being too good, though. An uncritical voter might be inclined to believe everything Ryan says simply because he says it with such assurance. The vice president’s constant sniping made it impossible for the Wisconsin congressman to make any point without being challenged. If Ryan had not been called out on his smart-sounding but factually dubious assertions, he could easily have come away from the debate looking like a winner in the same way Romney did. That would have been a disaster for the Democrats.

Ah ha! So Biden’s rudeness was justified because he was basically “fact-checking” Paul Ryan! Imagine the media saying that today about Trump.

The Washington Post argued that Biden wasn’t nearly as bad as Al Gore back in 2000. “Yes, Biden risked appearing rude and creating an unhelpful subplot with his constant interjections and scoffs. And it was grating at times. But it didn’t rise to the level of Al Gore 2000, when the presidential candidate’s sighs and eye-rolling were the lasting image of the debate.”

Did they watch the same debate I did?

To be fair, not all assessments of the debate gave Joe a pass for his behavior while debating Paul Ryan, but none of the criticisms matched the faux outrage we’re seeing now about Trump’s performance on Tuesday night. Nope, instead, Trump’s interruptions (but not Biden’s) were deemed unpresidential and rude and described as bullying. Changes to debate rules have been requested, thus proving that Democrats can dish it out but can’t take it themselves. And with the media giving them cover, they hope Trump will take the fall. Interestingly enough, those who acknowledged Biden’s rude “bullying” behavior seemed to agree that Paul Ryan nevertheless held his own. Fast forward to this week, and the media is calling on Biden to refuse to attend the next two debates.

But perhaps the most amusing assessment I found came from WBUR, an NPR station in Boston, Massachusetts. “Vice President Joe Biden was on the verge of appearing like a bully during segments of his debate against Paul Ryan Thursday night. Let’s hope his performance doesn’t set a new baseline for incivility in future debates.”

I’m just going to leave that there.

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