On Afghanistan, both candidates allowed that security is not ultimately America’s responsibility. Raddatz tried setting Ryan up with a question: “How do you justify staying in Afghanistan?” Ryan said that one of his closest friends is fighting in Afghanistan right now and he wants that friend and all the troops to come home but we cannot allow the gains gotten on the ground to be lost. A little past the hour mark, Biden said it was “bizarre” of Ryan to say that the US should not signal the enemy when we are leaving with a specific timeline. Biden then scolded Raddatz in response to her question of why the Obama administration removed the surge troops from Afghanistan before the security situation had improved. The withdrawal was done, said Biden, because the Obama administration said it would be. Ryan scored well when he noted that after the surge troops have left, the remaining troops still have to fulfill the same missions. Biden said that that’s because many missions have been turned over to the Afghan troops – many of whom have taken to murdering US troops at the first opportunity. Biden kept insisting that the war is the Afghans’ responsibility, never admitting that they have become completely unreliable allies.
Ryan on Syria: The Obama administration should not have “referred to Bashar Assad as a reformer when he was killing his people with his Russian-made weapons.” Biden sighed and looked away but did not interrupt. Ryan continued: “This is just one more example of how the Russian reset isn’t working.”
Biden: “Russia has a different interest in Syria than we do, and that is not in our interest.” Right. Got anything else? How does President Obama’s promised post-election “flexibility” factor into that? Biden then allowed that while the Russians are arming the Assad regime, the rebels are also being armed too. By whom? Raddatz the alleged moderator never followed up.
Raddatz steered the remaining minutes of the debate to social issues. Ryan said that he is pro-life both because of his Catholic faith and because he witnessed the heartbeat of his first child while still in the womb. Ryan then segued into the ObamaCare infringement on the right of religious groups not to be forced to fund abortion. Ryan described the Obama position of federal funding for abortion as “pretty extreme.” Biden went into his compassionate vote before stating that he agrees and disagrees with his church’s position on abortion. When he said that he did not believe in “imposing” his beliefs on others, he scored off the scale on the CNN meter. That moment was clearly his high-water mark and may have undone much of the damage he did to himself earlier with the myriad interruptions and chuckles. When he went partisan to attack Mitt Romney’s position on abortion, he died on the meter again. The undecided voters evidently liked hearing that Biden opposed imposing his views on anyone but did not like hearing him attack a man who was not in the room to defend himself.
How to score this debate? Vice President Joe Biden was frequently irritating to the point of being obnoxious when he interrupted Ryan and even scolded Raddatz, demanding equal time when he consistently stayed a minute ahead on the talk clock. But he scored well when he went into compassionate voice mode. He never stepped on any landmines or dealt up any of the expected gaffes. Ryan held his own, but a time or two allowed the interruptions to halt him when he was about to make a good point. Raddatz learned the wrong lesson from the Jim Lehrer experience. The left accused Lehrer of allowing Romney to say too much. Raddatz consistently interrupted Ryan more often than Biden and consistently changed the subject just when it seemed Ryan would score. Ryan seemed to connect more often with the undecided voter, and never came across as undisciplined the way Biden came off more than once. Returning to the opening paragraph, Ryan presented himself as a knowledgeable and plausible vice president. Biden did far better than some expectations had set for him but did not, in my judgment, change the trajectory of the campaign. He did no real harm, but did not help appreciably either. The best he can hope for is that the poll slide his campaign has seen since the first debate will be slowed.
Paul Ryan wins it, narrowly, more narrowly than expected. Vice president probably brought his best game, but his best is often off-putting and even rude.
Update: A snap CNBC poll finds that Ryan won 56% to 39% for Biden. Brit Hume, Joe Trippi (the Democrat operative), Greta Van Susteren and Chris Wallace all panned Biden’s demeanor. A woman on CNN’s focus group called Biden a “buffoon” and the CNN meter during the debate pretty consistently showed a higher line for Ryan than for Biden. If the image of Biden as rude takes hold, then over the coming days he will end up farther from his goal of helping his ticket recover from a bad week.