Rep. Paul Ryan won a tough debate on Thursday evening against Vice President Joe Biden--but Biden was not the biggest loser--who was, once again, President Barack Obama.
Biden, in fact, surpassed (low) expectations and played to his Democratic base--though not to independent voters--by interrupting, smirking, and chuckling.
Yet Biden hardly bothered to defend President Barack Obama's record, focusing instead on (often false) flaws in Ryan's and Gov. Mitt Romney's past.
In fact, Biden may have dug Obama some deeper holes, particularly on the Libya scandal and on budget issues.
Biden barely mentioned President Obama at all, as if he were ashamed of him. The word "Obama" appears 30 times in the debate transcript. Ryan mentioned Obama 25 times (10 times as "Obamacare"), while moderator Martha Raddatz used the word only four times, and Biden only once.
In contrast, Ryan referred to Romney 22 times, promoting the top of the Republican ticket as well as defending Romney from Biden's repeated attacks. For his part, Biden referred to Romney 26 times, and moderator Raddatz used the word "Romney" six times.
That partially reflects the debate's focus on Romney (who was mentioned 54 times in total, nearly twice as often as Obama), but it also reflects the weakness of Obama's argument in the election's closing weeks.
In other words, Ryan balanced attacks on President Obama with arguments in favor of Romney. For Biden it was all attack, no defense.
That may have impressed a Democratic base hungry for a fight after Obama's debate loss last week, but it likely did not move the ball in terms of convincing voters that Obama deserves a second term.
On Libya, Biden provided some alarming misrepresentations, claiming--falsely--that the administration had not received requests for additional security in Benghazi, and blaming the intelligence community--again, falsely--for convincing the White House that an anti-Islamic video, not a premeditated Al Qaeda attack, had been to blame.
On the economy--strangely, a muted issue in the debate--Biden reverted to blaming Obama's predecessor rather than defending the administration's record. And on budget issues, he repeated the lie that the $716 billion that Obamacare cut from Medicare was used to save Medicare benefits. Romney and Ryan have, against the odds, succeeded among seniors on the Medicare issue by hitting Obama and Biden on precisely that point.
Charles Krauthammer and other commentators have noted that Biden filled in some of the attack points against Romney that Obama had neglected in the first presidential debate, laying the groundwork for the final two debates. Yet one thing Biden did not do was provide Obama with any further basis for defending his four-year record--and he may even have hurt his boss.
And as Mary Matalin of CNN and other pundits noted, Ryan managed--despite his youthful demeanor--to project composure that helped him pass the threshold test for the office, disrupting the Obama campaign's attempt to paint both him and Romney as extremists.
With a dwindling number of undecided voters holding the nation's fate in their hands, that may be what matters most.