Get Ready for Fiscal Wonkery at the VP Debate

Katy O'Donnell, Margot Sanger-Katz and Sara Sorcher
October 11, 2012

The vice presidential debate on Thursday evening will feature candidates with very different policy portfolios. Rep. Paul Ryan’s splashy budget proposals have earned him a reputation as a policy wonk and have put fiscal issues—and Medicare reform—into the campaign spotlight. Vice President Joe Biden’s many years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have earned him President Obama’s ear on international affairs.

Unlike last week’s presidential debate, which featured long discussions of a few open-ended questions, the vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., will cover the gamut of domestic and international issues; moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News will raise nine focused questions over 90 minutes.

Here are some of the issues the candidates will likely need to address.

TAXES: After last week’s long tax discussion, Ryan may be asked to clarify GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s assertion that he does not want to cut taxes by $5 trillion, a widely cited figure drawn from the Tax Policy Center’s analysis of his plan: Which is the more important priority in the Romney-Ryan tax plan, that reform be deficit-neutral or that it lower tax rates by 20 percent? Biden, on the other hand, could be asked about the White House’s vow not to extend tax cuts for the wealthy: Since the marginal rates on the top 2 percent have just a modest impact on deficit reduction, why allow taxes to go up now, a potential economic drag, when events in Europe and the Middle East continue to threaten the shaky recovery?

DEFICIT: Ryan’s elevation to vice presidential candidate catapulted fiscal issues into the campaign in a way that no other running mate’s selection could have done. Widely regarded as a serious wonk, Ryan has made a name for himself by drafting budgets described as either audacious or draconian, depending on the speaker. His proposals would slash domestic spending and reshape federal entitlement programs. But he could be asked about how he reconciles his reputation as a disciplined fiscal hawk with his support of tax cuts and increased defense spending—his budget this year, for example, called for additional domestic-spending cuts not only to replace scheduled defense cuts, but to actually increase defense spending by $8 billion over the Senate request. Biden, meanwhile, could face questions on what happened to Obama’s pledge to cut the deficit in half during his first term, given the ever-rising federal debt. He may also be asked which entitlement reforms the White House is willing to get behind going forward, given Obama’s stated commitment to significant deficit reduction.

DEFENSE CUTS: Ryan has traversed defense-heavy swing states warning that massive Pentagon cuts at the hands of Obama would cost tens of thousands of jobs. It’s a flawed argument, since both parties agreed to the debt deal last August that would trigger $1.2 trillion in spending cuts—half from defense—if Congress fails to reach agreement on deficit reduction. The looming cuts could be a hot-button issue in the debate as such a compromise remains elusive. Ryan is sure to tout the House’s proposals to reduce the deficit that would spare defense cuts, but Biden would likely insist deficit reduction must be balanced and not unduly slash social programs. He is also likely to call for the Bush-era tax cuts to be repealed for the wealthiest earners.  

SIMPSON-BOWLES: Both candidates could be asked why they didn’t support the 2010 Simpson-Bowles framework for long-term deficit reduction, worth about $4 trillion over 10 years. Romney has criticized the president for not supporting the plan, but Ryan, who served on the 18-member panel, voted against it, citing concerns over growing health care costs. The White House convened the commission but looked the other way after the commission produced its report in December 2010.

MEDICARE: Ryan’s controversial proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher program has reshaped the Republican Party platform and become a key attack line from the Obama campaign. The latest version of Ryan’s plan would give seniors subsidies to choose from a variety of health plans, including traditional Medicare, but it has still been criticized for undermining the popular health insurance program and remains unpopular with the electorate. Ryan will need to explain how his plan will work and answer critiques that it could harm seniors. On the flipside, Biden will need to defend the $716 billion in Medicare cuts that were part of the president’s health reform law. Romney’s campaign has been saying that those cuts will threaten seniors’ access to care.

ENTITLEMENT COSTS: Both campaigns have plans to reduce long-term spending in the Medicare program, but neither plan will come close to resolving Medicare’s long-term budget problems. (Romney’s Medicare plan, partially clarified last week, is likely to cost more than Obama’s.) Ryan’s budget makes substantial cuts in future Medicaid spending, while the Obama plan expands the federal-state program for the poor and disabled. Neither campaign has been at all specific about Social Security reforms. In an election where both campaigns are making sizable deficit-reduction promises, they are likely to be asked how their entitlement policies balance the need for social programs against the long-term costs of the status quo.

SYRIA: Romney has accused Obama of failing to lead in Syria, where tens of thousands of people have been killed by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. In a speech earlier this week, Romney promised to work with Washington’s partners to identify and organize the members of the Syrian opposition and ensure they obtain the weapons to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. The Obama administration is, however, already doing this for the weapons flowing to the country primarily from Gulf states—but Biden would have a tough time saying so, since administration officials are not discussing these intelligence operations publicly. Neither candidate has said the U.S. should directly send arms to the Syrian rebels.

LIBYA ATTACK: Since the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Republicans have accused Obama of misleading the public by saying it was a spontaneous outbreak of violence rather than a coordinated act of terrorism. As controversy swirls on Capitol Hill, Ryan is likely to blast the Obama administration over reports that it turned down requests for additional security forces to protect the slain ambassador, Chris Stevens, and his personnel—and possibly ignored warnings of a potential attack. Biden is likely to defend the administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 assault by saying the administration learned more about the events in the days and even weeks after the attack—and punt any questions on the details due to an ongong federal investigation.

IRAN: Romney has insisted that he will not allow Tehran to acquire nuclear-weapons capability, and has jabbed Obama for failing to derail the program through negotiations and the current raft of sanctions. Despite the strong rhetoric, the differences in their policies appear negligible: Obama has also said that no option, including military action, is off the table when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. Biden would likely point to the recent currency collapse in Iran as a sign that current U.S. sanctions, the toughest so far, are indeed having an effect.

FREE TRADE: A key part of the GOP ticket’s economic argument is its support of expanded free trade. The president, Romney frequently notes, has not entered into any new trade negotiations; while he has signed free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, those deals were largely hammered out by the George W. Bush administration. Ryan may be asked about the specific guidelines a Romney-Ryan administration would bring to trade negotiations—an issue of particular significance given Romney’s vow on Monday to make free trade a part of his strategy in the Middle East—and the level of support it would give to Trade Adjustment Assistance programs for displaced workers. (Romney has been pilloried by the Left for “outsourcing” jobs while at Bain Capital.) Biden, meanwhile, could be pressed on why the Obama administration has not pursued new trade agreements, especially in light of Obama’s convention pledge to open up exports in order to create 1 million new manufacturing jobs.

IMMIGRATION: The candidates weren’t asked about immigration policy at last week’s presidential debate, but Obama has been clear that he’d like to tackle immigration reform in a second term, while Romney has been more vague. Both Ryan and Biden may be asked about their policy visions. Already, the Obama administration has launched an executive version of a “Dream Act” program, allowing some young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to avoid deportation. Romney has said that he wouldn’t revoke their visas, but has generally taken a hard line on immigration policy. Both running mates could be called upon to explain their plans for the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.