I don't like to watch national political debates. They make me nervous, way more nervous than their consequences warrant. Perhaps this is partly the experience of dealing with the Bushes, for whom I constantly felt embarrassed. Naturally, I missed Romney's terrific debate performance last week.
I thought Biden was effective tonight. Not that his arguments were better, but it sounds more credible when you say things repeatedly and loudly and indignantly, and he did that.
I thought the moderator was awful. When Biden interrupted Ryan, her most frequent response was not to try to moderate by giving each an appropriate chance to speak, but by asking a new question -- effectively cutting Ryan off. She also pressed Ryan on several issues and only once, mildly, pressed Biden.
Ryan was remarkably patient, more patient than was good for him, I thought, in the early stages. Unfortunately, when two people are talking over each other, the one who falls silent first seems to be yielding, and Ryan constantly gave in. It was the moderator's job to prevent this sort of thing, but she abdicated. At least Ryan showed that he was statesmanlike.
I'm not sure what he should have done otherwise. I would have been tempted to continue talking when Biden interrupted, which Ryan did some toward the end. What I really would want to do in that sort of situation is step out of character for a moment and make a meta-comment. You're in a supposedly respectable debate, you're expected to behave in a certain way, including not making comments about extraneous things. But I don't think I would have been able to refrain from commenting on Biden's interruptions. Ryan did, once, talking about the ground the Democrats had to make up, but I don't think it was really effective. What I would have preferred would have been for him to say, "When you can't make an effective argument, it is tempting to interrupt your opponent to prevent him from making a point." And to repeat that line at the start of every time he got to talk after Biden had interrupted him. It's probably better that he didn't.
Biden did what the Obama campaign wanted him to do: attack repeatedly and paint the Republicans as heartless. On the other hand, Ryan probably also did what he needed to: appear as a legitimate candidate for vice president. I have a hard time judging how debates would be perceived by independent voters, but I don't think this one went drastically one way or the other.
One side point is that I think Obama missed a big opportunity in not elevating Hillary Clinton onto his ticket. In 2008, he didn't need her, and my guess is he preferred to have a vice president who wouldn't upstage him. In 2012, he could have benefitted greatly from the additional energy she would have brought to the campaign. It would have been similar in some respects to McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate, with the exception that Clinton has already served 8 years in the Senate and 4 years as secretary of state; in other words, she is already a credible candidate for national office, no questions asked. It may turn out that he doesn't need her this year, either, but my feeling is that he would have been significantly better off choosing her.