Mary Altaffer / AP
Published Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 | 5 p.m.
Updated Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 | 11 p.m.
The fast-paced, content-rich brawl between Vice President Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan on Thursday stood in sharp contrast to last week’s contest between President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney in both style and substance.
The candidates raced through a roster of issues, orbiting chiefly around foreign policy, with breaks to discuss the tax code and health care, and the candidates’ personal reflections on abortion.
That focus appeared to give Biden, who focused on foreign policy for much of his 36-year Senate career, an advantage over Ryan.
But he got off on a bit of a false start.
The debate began on the question of Libya, with moderator Martha Raddatz directly challenging the length of time it took the Obama administration to admit that the embassy attack on the anniversary of Sept. 11 had been a terrorist attack.
The question gave Ryan a chance to take an early shot at the administration.
“It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack,” Ryan said, reminding Biden of how many times Obama had blamed the attack on an anti-Muslim video that was circulating online near the time of the attack.
“If we’re hit by terrorists,” Ryan said of a Romney administration, “we’re going to call it what it is: a terrorist attack.”
Ryan went on to criticize Obama for “projecting weakness abroad,” not just on Libya, but in his approach to other foreign challenges, especially Iran.
It would prove to be one of Ryan’s best punches of the night. But with a classically Bidenesque retort, the vice president moved quickly to steal Ryan’s thunder.
“With all due respect,” Biden said. “That’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Biden maintained a two-part style throughout the night. He stuck up for Obama’s policies when it was his turn to speak — whether on health care, Afghanistan, or the bailout of the auto industry. And when it was Ryan’s turn to present his case, Biden routinely interrupted him, accusing him of twisting facts and forcing Ryan off his course of criticizing Obama.
For example, when Ryan went after the Obama administration for driving the stimulus bill through Congress, Biden broke in to point out the two letters Ryan had written “saying by the way, can you send me some more stimulus money for the state of Wisconsin.”
Ryan had to stop mid-attack to address it.
“On two occasions we advocated for constituents applying for grants,” Ryan admitted. “That’s what we do. We do that for all constituents who are ...”
“I love that,” Biden interrupted. “I love that this was such a bad program he writes me a letter ... saying ‘the reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.’”
“Take some responsibility,” “facts matter,” and “what would you do differently?” were Biden’s favored lines of the night as the elder politician needled the younger Ryan and tried to break the flow of his arguments.
Ryan remained cool under pressure, but was noticeably agitated by Biden’s tactic.
“I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think we would be better served if we didn’t keep interrupting each other,” Ryan shot at Biden during a discussion of Ryan’s Medicare reform plan, which has the odd distinction of being an issue Republicans consider to be one of their strongest, but most Democrats count as the GOP’s worst negative.
There too, the discussion ran aground in a lengthy spat in which Biden wouldn’t give an inch. For example, Ryan’s suggestion that his Medicare reform proposal was bipartisan resulted in the following volley:
“There’s not one Democrat who endorses it,” Biden cut in.
“Our partner is a Democrat from Oregon,” Ryan corrected Biden.
“Who no longer supports it,” Biden corrected back.
“We put it together with the former Clinton budget director,” Ryan protested.
“Who disavows it,” Biden cut in.
Thursday’s debate produced no new policy revelations, just a series of protracted bouts over well-trodden topics. Nonetheless, the raw energy of Biden and Ryan’s speedy, bare-knuckled exchange injected fresh emotion into even the most tired of campaign lines.
On taxes, their fight broke along the traditional party line, with Ryan warning that the Obama plan to let higher income tax rates rise was a ruse, and Biden charging Romney simply didn’t care about the middle class.
“There aren’t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending,” Ryan said. “Watch out, middle class, the tax bill’s coming to you.”
Biden listed what he considers Romney’s worst sins against the middle class: his opposition to the auto industry bailout, his comments to the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the housing market bottom out, and his comments to the donors about the willfully dependent 47 percent of Americans.
“I’ve had it up to here ... it’s about time they take some responsibility,” Biden said of his Republican rivals. “They’re holding hostage the middle class tax cut because they say ... we won’t continue the middle class tax cut unless you give a tax cut to the super-wealthy.”
Biden also accused Ryan of hypocrisy and distorting facts when it came to the administration’s efforts to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“In order to solve [Iran] peacefully — which is everybody's goal — you have to have the ayatollahs change their minds,” said Ryan, adding that a Romney administration would not rule out committing troops to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “Look at where they are. They're moving faster toward a nuclear weapon. It’s because this administration has no credibility on this issue. It's because this administration watered down sanctions, delayed sanctions, tried to stop us from putting the tough sanctions in place.”
Biden was quick to respond.
“The ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. The ayatollah sees that there are 50 percent fewer exports of oil. He sees the currency going into the tank. He sees the economy going into free-fall. And he sees the world for the first time totally united in opposition to him getting a nuclear weapon,” Biden said, arguing that sending ground forces to the region was off the table. “The interesting thing is there’s nothing more that they say they should do than what we’ve done.”
Within minutes of its close, most pundits were declaring Biden the clear winner of Thursday night’s debate. But vice presidential candidates aren’t traditionally known for moving polls — because they’re not the ones who are running for president.
The vote count is so tight in this particular race that this year could prove to be an exception. But that will depend more on how well Ryan and Biden represented their bosses at the top of the ticket than on who bested who in a contest of the two men who were onstage Thursday night.
Various reports noted that Romney called Ryan after the debate to offer his congratulations.
Obama chose to give a public statement instead.
"I'm going to make a special point of saying that I thought Joe Biden was terrific tonight,” Obama told reporters getting off Air Force One Thursday night. “I could not be prouder of him.”