Hey, Let's Debate the Debate -- Just Not on the Substance, OK?

Vice Presidential Debate Biden Ryan - H 2012
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Vice Presidential Debate Biden Ryan - H 2012

Imagine, if you will, that both Vice President Joe Biden and GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan got their debate questions in advance and wrote out their responses and those were then printed in newspapers across the country and posted online. Imagine that they were not “debating” each other on television, a medium Americans have been raised on and trained by repetition to read facial expression and emotions.

Wouldn’t that be awful? It would be the dissemination of information that came unfiltered and just sat there to be read, ingested and judged on merit, not smirks, disagreements and blowhardism.

But it would also be boring. We live in the information age, dominated by technology that delivers that information in the fastest and most diverse ways possible and yet -- and yet! (that’s a debate gesture for effect) -- we somehow still find it important to have these outdated political debates that end up being judged by political wonks and pundits like some fashion show or tough-guy showdown. We want debates for drama (ooooh, President Obama didn’t fight back hard enough in his confrontation with Mitt Romney) and for superficial character assessments (Biden smirked and smiled sarcastically and was disrespectful).

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See, the content isn’t what we want. Even the wonkiest of political analysts will tell you that debates don’t sway elections. So, why do we have them?

For theater. For show. For television.

That’s probably why the vice presidential debate will fill more column inches and ramblings in the ether than last week's Obama-Romney faceoff. In that one, the consensus was that the president was dullsville. Unaggressive. Slow to counter-punch. That ended up being the story -- not so much what he or Romney said but the physical nature of how the president looked and sounded during the debate. Superficial? Sure. That’s why it was on television.

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In the VP debate, however, the action was fast and furious. Ryan was forceful, stern and unrelenting, but Biden was right there on the split-screen to use his face as a reply. And that reply was, in essence, “Bullshit.” Biden’s goal seemed to be to laugh and smile at everything Ryan was saying, as if a thought bubble above his head would read, “Ridonkulous!” It was probably effective if you’re a Democrat. “We fact-checked your ass right on the spot, Ryan, and called you on all your distortion and lack of detail!” If you’re a Republican, it was probably annoying and, well, uncouth. “What unbelievable disrespect the vice president showed Mr. Ryan. His visual disdain was childish and offensive.”

That, by the way, is in fact what both sides were saying, just reduced to its essence and noted with a little more sarcasm. Biden’s smirk and later his frequent interruptions to dispute Ryan’s statements and then to vociferously and near-angrily rebut everything is what will make the headlines. Check that -- it already is the headline, virtually around the world.

But you have to look further to find exactly what Ryan said and exactly what Biden disputed. Only those people who want to know precisely what the argument and objections were will track down that information.

Everybody else -- go ahead and wave because you’re in the majority of the crowd shot -- will remember only the drama of it all. They will remember the theater of what played out on television, as if the debate was some special version of Law & Order.

Now that we have the meat of the issue -- and the problems with these debates -- documented in this little disappointed rant about the national discourse, let’s get to the big point:

Was it good television?

Sure it was. All the interruptions, the fiery back-and-forth. The thinly veiled contempt. The “my friend” mentions and the chuckles. The pleas to moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News to get more time to fire back. Hell, Biden not only got to use the word “malarkey” but also sputter with sarcastic indignation, “Now you’re Jack Kennedy?!”

Ryan got to furrow his brow at Biden’s responses as if to say, “Listen, old man, I think you need to stop waving the cane and have some water.”

Speaking of water -- wow, did Ryan drink a lot of it. Instead of listening to what was going on, a good bet is a lot of people just kept thinking Ryan would need to go to the bathroom.

But that’s fine. We like to pretend that we tune in for the substance, but it’s all the verbal theatrics and facial gymnastics that really hook us.

Now, let’s see what moves the poll numbers more: Biden’s indignant refusal to buy what Ryan was selling or Biden’s rude behavior. The guess here is that it will really depend on which party you’re in. Which pretty much brings us back to where we were before the debate. Hey, let’s do this again on Tuesday and see what happens!

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com