Watching the Vice-Presidential Debate — with the Sound Off

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin shake hands before the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.

I watched the first presidential debate on mute, and the candidates’ body language was telling, just like the debate experts say it should be. So I decided to not listen to anything the vice presidential candidates said either. Surely the visual cues of two completely different candidates arguing in completely different wardrobes would provide new depths of insight into American politics. Plus, if Paul Ryan decided to roll up his sleeves and just let his biceps do the talking—clearly an ace up his sleeve—I wouldn’t miss a thing. 

Pundits were atwitter about potential visual cues on the day of the debate. A CNN interviewee said that Joe Biden needed to appear “aggressive … without seeming overly aggressive.” An ABC news anchor warned that Biden might look “old and tired” next to a younger, fresher face like Ryan’s. A North Virginia image consultant explained how powerful the debaters’ suit colors could be. Navy blue, she told Patch, is the standard for appearing “authoritative, trustworthy and credible.” After a careful study of the color wheel, I concluded that if either candidate came on stage in a yellow-orange suit, that would be a big mistake.

As Biden and Ryan met on stage in Danville, Ky., both men forcefully executed a handshake and shoulder-grab combo. For a moment it seemed like the “Thrill in the ‘Ville” might turn into a real wrestling match. But it was not to be. The foes disengaged and took their seats at the table. Biden wore a blue tie with dark stripes, in Democratic solidarity with Obama. Ryan sported a red tie with blue stripes, scoring bipartisan points. Both men had clearly been briefed on suit colors.

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Like Romney did in his first debate, Ryan wore a much larger flag pin on his lapel than his Democratic counterpart. “He may be a fiscal conservative,” the accessory said, “but the flag-pin shop ain’t no place for skimping.”

A table debate might seem less visually interesting than a lectern debate. It’s not. The format forces the seated foes into close-quarters combat. From the outset, both men power-stared and smirked while the other was talking. While Ryan’s glances communicated skepticism, Biden’s vaulted into the realm of wild incredulousness—as if he’d prepared for the debate by arguing with someone who was convinced the world is flat.

As Ryan spoke, Biden shook his head in disbelief. He threw his hands in the air. He (more frequently) tried to interrupt. He peered conspiratorially into the camera, as if to say “Can you believe this guy?” And most of all, he laughed and smiled. He smiled like someone was under the table tickling him and it was all he could do not to fall out of his chair.

Biden’s demeanor wasn’t completely oafish. It conveyed a sense of command. Without knowing what was said, I can say Biden looked like a jerk, but he also looked like a pro. He looked dismissive, but he also looked comfortable. Biden looked old too, as ABC News had feared. His white wisps of hair were clearly receding. Next door, Ryan’s mane was dark and full. But the elder debater didn’t lack for energy and kept up with the boyish Ryan.

Toward the end, the questions and answers seemed to get more serious. Biden’s smiles became infrequent. Moderator Martha Raddatz seemed to be breaking terrible news to the candidates. Only during this straight-faced part did I really start to appreciate how much more entertaining the silent vice presidential debate had been than the silent presidential one. Based on body language alone, Biden’s performance took the cake–if only because it was so hard to look away from him. But both candidates seemed deeply engaged, and so was I.