I was struck by one key contrast on display between the candidates last night. First, Paul Ryan tried to play defense on Medicare and Social Security by invoking Barack Obama:

“Barack Obama, four years ago, running for president, said if you don’t have any fresh ideas, use stale tactics to scare voters. If you don’t have a good record to run on, paint your opponent as someone people should run from. Make a big election about small ideas.”

And then, Joe Biden:

“And with regard to Social Security, we will not — we will not privatize it. If we had listened to Romney, to Governor Romney and the congressman during the Bush years, imagine where all those seniors would be now if their money had been in the market. Their ideas are old, and their ideas are bad, and they eliminate the guarantee of Medicare.”

Two things about this. First, the Ryan quote might be used effectively against Bain attacks, but it is no defense at all against the policy-based attacks that Biden was using all night. In particular, the Democratic claim about the Romney/Ryan Medicare plan, the Romney/Ryan Medicaid plan, and the Social Security plan that Ryan is still defending is that those plans would mean painful cuts that would affect the lives of real people. It’s no defense at all to say “stop scaring people.” Either Ryan should be defending those cuts, or denying that they are real, which he simply cannot do if he wants to stick to the truth about the plans they are proposing.

The second thing is Biden’s comment: “Their ideas are old, and their ideas are bad.” It will be interesting to see whether the campaign runs with this one over the last few weeks. During the vice-presidential debate, it allowed Biden to put his age to work, in the sense that he remembers thirty plus years of Republicans promoting basically the same ideas in good times and bad.

I think that’s what David Brooks and others miss when they read the debate as “a battle of generations.” One problem with this is that the Democrat at the top of the ticket is far younger than the Republican at the top of the ticket. It also doesn’t help Brooks’s case that judging from the polling after the first debate, Barack Obama’s TV-age “cool” was a clear loser. And even in the context of the vice-presidential debate, despite Ryan’s relative youth, Biden’s case is that the Democrats are the ones who stand for newer ideas, whether it’s the Affordable Care Act or a more flexible foreign policy or, albeit unmentioned in the debate, action against climate. Ryan may be young, but the ideas he’s pitching are the same ones that Republican think tanks were churning out well before Ryan worked at one.

I’m not sure whether any of that will affect the election outcome. But Biden is basically correct — and it’s part of the reason why Republicans have had so much trouble governing in recent years. The Vice President, who was in the Senate when those ideas really were new in the late 1970s, did a nice job in pointing it out.