Vice President Biden wasn’t passive, to be sure, in the debate tonight. Nevertheless, he was so aggressive, so rude and so overbearing that it is hard to see how he won over any undecided voters. By contrast, many voters who had never seen or heard Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for any extended time learned why he has earned the respect of his colleagues and was selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Just before the debate, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter made waves by saying that the only reason Libya was an issue was because the Republican ticket had made a fuss. That was the subject of an extended argument and the start of one of many heated exchanges.
Sitting side by side at the debate table, Ryan and Biden began with the Benghazi debacle. Biden looked stern, saying he’d get to the bottom of it and find the perpetrators. He then went off topic as soon as possible, migrating to Iran, Iraq and just about anything else. Ryan went back in and laid into Ambassador Susan Rice and President Obama (who went to the U.N. to talk about the anti-Muslim video). Ryan then scored big by telling Biden he was the one who failed to get a status of forces agreement. Biden rebutted, calling Ryan a liar (“malarkey”). He got grilled by moderator Martha Raddatz as to what he knew and when he knew it; Biden deflected, saying that he was given wrong information by the intelligence community. It was a crash course for the American people in the Benghazi debacle, not a subject that is in any way helpful to the administration.
As they moved on to Iran, Biden’s habit of smirking and laughing and being dismissive came across as disrespectful, even nasty. Ryan largely ignored the jabs. Ryan patiently laid out the facts on everything from the failure of the sanctions to Obama’s decision to go on a TV show rather than meet with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu at the United Nations. Biden sneered back, repeating that Romney-Ryan wanted to start a war. Repeatedly laughing at his opponent, Biden forfeited his likability and whatever stature he held. Ryan pounded away at the Obama administration’s acts of weakness on everything from showing daylight between Israel and the United States to watering down sanctions. Ryan more than held his own; if nothing else, Biden’s demeanor lost him support, I strongly suspect. The split screen replays will be deadly.
On the economy Biden jumped around, touting his Scranton roots and insisting that the economy was improving. Again, Ryan came back methodically, telling Biden that unemployment is higher in Wisconsin than it was when Biden entered office. He explained that we are adding fewer jobs today than a month or a year ago. He then had the moment of the night in responding to an attack on Romney’s 47 percent comments, saying that Biden knew all too well that “words sometimes don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” Delivered with a sweet smile, it got a huge laugh.
Biden accused Romney-Ryan of not caring or having plans. He oddly blamed two wars (both of which he voted to support) for the recession. Ryan methodically came back to remind the audience that Obama had a Democratic majority in the House and Senate for two years. Biden would interrupt, roll his eyes and laugh. Ryan came back calmly, pinning the cronyism and “the green jobs” scandals on the Obama administration.
As they moved to entitlements, Ryan made his case on Obama’s failure to fix entitlement programs and then proceeded to lay out his Medicare premium support plan.When Biden attacked on Medicare and then tried to interrupt, Ryan said the administration “got caught with their hand in the cookie jar” grabbing from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. At one point, he turned to Biden to tell him that he knew Biden was under pressure to make up lost ground but that the viewers would be better served if he didn’t interrupt. Ryan made a sober case for gradually increasing the retirement age for Social Security. When Biden spat out accusations, Ryan quoted Obama from 2008: “This is what politicians do when they don’t have a record to run on.”
As they moved on to, taxes Biden made his pitch to raise taxes on the rich. Again Ryan came back to object to raising taxes on small businesses and to explain the Romney tax plan, citing six studies that said it could be done without sacrificing progressivity.
The longer the debate, the more obnoxious Biden became. Ryan more than held his own on national security, both on sequestration and on the premature withdrawal from Afghanistan. At times Biden and Raddatz went at it, with Raddatz struggling to interject. He jabbed his finger at her, bizarrely arguing with the moderator. She challenged both on defense, quizzing Ryan on defense cuts and telling that Biden not all military commanders wanted the extreme defense cuts. Raddatz slipped in some tough questions, asking Biden if the Taliban might be taking advantage of the hard and fast timeline. She again ribbed Biden for saying that some military officials had concern about the quickened pullout of the troops. Rather than debating Ryan, Biden began arguing with Raddatz again, raising his voice and getting heated.
On Syria, Biden insisted that we are acting hand in hand to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. Ryan calmly detailed the misjudgment made by the Obama team (calling Assad a “reformer”) in delaying action, allowing Assad to continue to slaughter his people and giving Russia a veto at the U.N.
As the pace slowed toward the end, both candidates became more heartfelt. Biden argued that his Catholic belief was separate from his pro-choice view. Ryan made a moving statement about seeing his daughter’s ultrasound, saying that the GOP ticket believed in three exceptions to abortion.
In the closing rounds, Ryan spoke calmly, chiding the president for divisiveness and broken promises. Biden nearly comically told us he never said anything he didn’t mean. Ryan gave a classic closing statement, actually asking viewers for their votes. Biden whined about getting shortened on time. Raddatz must have been exhausted. Any audience members hanging on certainly were.
It was the most bizarre performance in any debate in my memory. Biden was so obnoxious, so over-the-top, that it is hard to see how independent voters, especially women, would find him tolerable, let alone effective. Arguing with the female moderate, jabbing his finger and constantly interrupting both Raddatz and Ryan, he came across like a bully.
Raddatz at times was unable to stand up to Biden’s bullying, but she hung in there, never losing her poise. She returned some of his jabs. She was a more active moderate, to be sure, than Jim Lehrer. But the debate was certainly lively, and she was exquisitely fair.
Losers: Biden; the aide who forgot to tell him there was a split screen; incivility.
Winners: Ryan; civility.