Jacob Heilbrunn

Martha Raddatz Won the Debate

The clear winner of the debate last night wasn't Joe Biden or Paul Ryan. It was Martha Raddatz of ABC News. She asked both candidates tough questions, sought to keep them on track and brooked no nonsense, in contrast to the hapless Jim Lehrer, who should be forced to watch reruns of all the presidential debates for a month as penance for his lackluster performance. As Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times notes, Raddatz "acted like a working journalist rather than a television personality." The verdict, as Politico reports, seems pretty much unanimous: Raddatz ruled.

As to who came out on top among the two candidates, the verdict is unequivocal. Biden thumped Ryan. Not as badly as Mitt Romney lacerated President Obama during the first debate, but Biden exposed many of the contradictions in Ryan's stances. Foreign policy was especially glaring.

Consider Afghanistan. Here the Romney campaign's attempts to create bogus distinctions and controversies emerged clearly. Biden said "we're leaving" in 2014. Ryan said that he and Romney agree with the date. But they wouldn't commit to it. It would simply embolden the Taliban, he said. So 2014 is supposed to be a secret? Either we're leaving or we're not. Biden pounced. Ryan left himself open to the impression that Romney would stay on in Afghanistan—a deeply unpopular position.

Then there's Syria. Once again Ryan produced foreign-policy bluster. Biden said there's no way that the Obama administration was going to get sucked into another war in the Middle East. Ryan huffed and puffed that the administration isn't doing enough. He complained that we've oursourced our foreign policy to the United Nations. And that Obama is letting Russia determine the course of events in Syria. But he couldn't say what he and Romney would do differently.

When it came to domestic policy, a similar lack of clarity prevailed. Where would the trillions come from that Romney is proposing to lavish on the military? Ryan couldn't say. The home-mortgage deduction? Ryan wouldn't say if it would be preserved (even though it shouldn't). And so on.

No, Ryan's performance was hardly a disaster. He didn't commit any of the dreaded gaffes that press is longing for, and he remained polite and personable, even as Biden adopted the demeanor of one of the participants in a Washington Sunday morning talk show. Mostly what Biden provided was balm for the jangled nerves of Democrats who suffered a mental meltdown over the president's debate against Romney. Since then the Obama campaign has been in a kind of intensive ward with various doctors prescribing nostrums to reanimate the patient who seems to be showing fitful signs of recovery.

Whether this debate will affect the polls or even votes is dubious. The next Obama-Romney slugfest—and it is likely to be much harder hitting—will be more important to deciding the outcome. But it will take a tough moderator to make it as interesting as the one last night. The person who really proved herself last night was Raddatz. Maybe the debate sponsors should can the other upcoming moderators and sign up Raddatz to do the rest.

Image of Paul Ryan: Tony Alter/Gobonobo

Image of Joe Biden: World Economic Forum