Paul Ryan Wins Debate as Joe Biden Fails to Embarrass Rival

Michael Hirsh

Vice President Joe Biden had one task in his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan on Thursday night: to regain the offensive against the Republican ticket after his boss, Barack Obama, all but relinquished the stage to Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate last week.

Biden failed in that goal, for the most part, though the sometimes gaffe-prone vice president certainly did not embarrass himself. 

What the 69-year-old vice president needed to do in this debate was to use his vastly greater experience in public office—four decades’ worth—to show up his 42-year-old rival’s inexperience, especially in foreign policy. But Biden at best battled Ryan to a standoff. In particular, Biden was not terribly effective in countering the anticipated Republican script, which involved a move to the moderate middle less than a month before the election. Ryan, who for much of his young career has been a hero to conservatives, managed to successfully portray himself and Romney as defenders of the middle class and responsible stewards of foreign policy who would not get America into another war.

Biden certainly tried hard to catch Ryan out. He spent much of the 90-minute debate grinning in seeming disbelief at Ryan’s answers, which covered a mind-boggling range of issues from Afghanistan and Syria to the future of Medicare and Social Security. And unlike the president, who was perceived as “too polite” (Obama’s own words) in his first debate with Romney, Biden sought to highlight Romney’s most embarrassing moments on the stump, in particular the GOP nominee’s now-infamous comment that “47 percent” of the country had no sense of personal responsibility for their lives. “I’ve had it up to here with this notion,” Biden declared, saying that Republicans like Romney and Ryan needed to take responsibility for the harm their proposals would bring to the middle class and to investments in America’s future.

But Biden for the most part failed to add enough substance to his stock phrases of dismissal --“That’s a bunch of malarkey." ... “Not a single thing he said was accurate.” ... “This is a bunch of stuff” -- to embarrass Ryan. In particular, Ryan managed to neutralize the issue of whether Romney's proposed 20 percent cut in marginal tax rates would favor the rich, despite the lack of specifics of which deductions and loopholes the Republicans would eliminate. Biden did not effectively challenge those ambiguities in the GOP plan, even as Ryan followed the presidential nominee in dramatically shifting position on that plan toward the middle, highlighting Romney’s “bipartisanship.”

On critical domestic issues, namely the radical Ryan budget plan that embodies a fiercely pared-down concept of government, Biden for the most part failed to make the case that a Romney-Ryan administration would undercut the middle class and further enrich America’s wealthiest citizens, despite a Congressional Budget Office study earlier this year that concluded it would effectively eliminate, by 2050, funding for education, highways, veterans' programs, foreign aid, medical and scientific research, national parks, food and water safety, and most programs for low-income families and individuals other than Medicaid, as well as partially privatize Medicare.

Biden, like Obama before him, missed opportunities to point up inconsistencies in Romney's and Ryan’s prior positions. At one point in the debate, Ryan repeated a line that has become a staple of Republican talking points: that America’s seniors would see their benefits reduced because of a $716 billion cut in Medicare. Biden failed to point out that Ryan himself had embraced those reductions in his own budget plan.  

Although the moderator, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, spent a substantial portion of the debate on foreign policy—presumably a Biden strength since he formerly served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been enormously influential on such issues inside the administration -- the vice president did not decisively get the better of the well-prepped Ryan, who has little experience in this area.

Raddatz began by asking about the administration’s handling of Libya and the death of U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens a month ago. Both candidates turned that into a broad discussion of the Obama administration’s handling of issues from the Middle East to Afghanistan. But there was no clear winner there either.

Biden effectively countered the Romney-Ryan criticism that Obama had been weak or indecisive in addressing the nuclear threat from Iran, but he also failed to bring up the latest news that tends to vindicate the administration’s sanctions policy: a broad-based collapse of Iran’s currency, the rial.

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