Grins don't matter in VP debate, but a false Libya claim might

Luiza Ch. Savage on a key exchange in the evening

During Thursday’s vice-presidential debate, there were a lot of complaints by Republicans about VP Joe Biden’s demeanor: his laughing and smirking, dismissing Ryan’s answers as “malarkey” and a “bunch of stuff.”

Democrats, meanwhile, cheered his aggressive attacks on Romney and Ryan and loved the debate, which they found to be a much-needed answer to the president’s weak performance in Denver.

Romney-supporters are likely right that Biden came off as less likeable than Ryan, who kept his composure. But I’m not sure it matters. The role of the vice president in a campaign is to be the attack dog and to open wounds. The guy at the top of the ticket has to worry about likability. In that sense, Biden may have played it just right.

Biden was crisp, focused and effective in defending Obama and attacking Romney. Ryan held his own, and struck a reassuring, wonkish tone. But Biden seemed to have the upper hand many times during the debate.

Yet on one issue, Biden gave an answer that only raises more questions. Asked why the administration did not provide additional security to diplomats in Libya ahead of the deadly attacks last month in Benghazi, Biden said, “We did not know they wanted more security.” This seems to contradict recent testimony to Congress of some former security officials in Libya. Or perhaps it depends on what the meaning of the word “we” is?

Here is the full exchange:

MARTHA RADDATZ: What were you first told about the attack? Why — why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on (inaudible)?

BIDEN: Because that was exactly what we were told by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment. That’s why there’s also an investigation headed by Tom Pickering, a leading diplomat from the Reagan years, who is doing an investigation as to whether or not there are any lapses, what the lapses were, so that they will never happen again.

RADDATZ: And they wanted more security there.

BIDEN: Well, we weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security again. And by the way, at the time we were told exactly — we said exactly what the intelligence community told us that they knew. That was the assessment. And as the intelligence community changed their view, we made it clear they changed their view.

That’s why I said we will get to the bottom of this. You know, usually when there’s a crisis, we pull together. We pull together as a nation. But as I said, even before we knew what happened to the ambassador, the governor was holding a press conference — was holding a press conference. That’s not presidential leadership.

Expect to hear Obama pressed on this question in the next debate.