Vice Presidential Debate: A Narrow Win for One but not a Game Changer

Both combatants came into the sole vice presidential debate with different and difficult assignments. Vice President Biden came into the debate needing to change the trajectory after a miserable week for the Obama campaign that began with the president’s poor performance in the first debate. Rep. Paul Ryan needed to show the nation that he is a plausible second-in-command for troubled times while going toe-to-toe on the national stage for the first time against Biden, who had been involved in 18 major debates before tonight.

The debate started with a question about Libya. Biden admitted that there were mistakes but said the administration is “getting to the bottom of it.” Biden then said that Obama has promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has and will. Why Obama never speaks of “winning” either war was not addressed by the vice president. Biden filibustered on the question of what happened in Benghazi, saying that Obama would “pursue terrorists to the gates of Hell” and has “led with a steady hand.” That steady hand flew to Vegas, not Hell, for a fundraiser the day after four Americans died in what was not a protest. Ryan said that Obama took two weeks to admit that Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and said we should have had a Marine detachment guarding the now-late Ambassador Stevens. Ryan said that Benghazi is indicative of a broader problem: the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.

Moderator Martha Raddatz challenged: Was it too early for Romney when he spoke up about the Benghazi attack the night they happened? No, said Ryan, while Biden flashed his teeth and shook his head. Then he laughed, while Ryan described Obama’s foreign policy weakness. Biden called Ryan’s statement “malarkey” before unloading the line – debunked at the House Benghazi hearings – that budget cuts were related to the lack of security. Lie #1 came from the vice president, after interrupting Ryan giving a sober assessment of the geopolitical landscape after Benghazi. Biden even accused “these guys” of “betting against America all the time.”

Raddatz challenged Biden: There were no protests. Why did your administration say there were? Biden said there is an investigation but the intelligence community said there had been a protest. The intelligence community says now that there was no protest in Benghazi and they never said there was. Biden also said that Washington did not know that the field officers wanted more security in Libya. Lt. Col. Andrew Wood and Eric Nordstrom both testified to the House of their multiple requests for security, and denial of same.

On Iran, Ryan said that the Obama administration has “no credibility” and that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons at full speed. Credibility, said Ryan, is the key to solving the issue peacefully. Biden called that “incredible” and laughed, before calling the sanctions “the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions” and accusing Ryan of wanting to go to war. The difference between the candidates came down to whether Iran would be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability or an actual nuclear weapon. Capability is the Israeli red line and the Romney position, an actual weapon is the Obama/Biden position. But once they have a weapon, it may be deployed or handed off to terrorists. Raddatz the moderator jumped in to voice skepticism of the Romney/Ryan position on changing the ayatollahs’ minds. She has already allowed Biden a pair of longer winded, non-substantive answers. Biden called the Romney/Ryan position a “bunch of stuff,” which he eventually clarified means “malarkey.” And then he laughed while Ryan described the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Then he chided the moderator: “Facts matter, Martha!” before saying that it’s not true that Iran is closer than it seems to developing a nuclear weapon.

Biden’s strategy became clear during the Iran exchange: Try to drive a wedge between Ryan and Romney on the subject of sanctions. Ryan never said that sanctions should be lifted, he simply argued for a clearer line that harmonizes with our allies in Israel. Biden unfortunately got away with blurring that fact.

At 22 minutes past the hour, Biden launched the expected “47%” attack. He cited seniors and troops in the field as among those Romney says are “not paying taxes.” He went on at length about how Romney, Ryan and the Republicans should “take some responsibility,” after Obama has blamed Bush for four long and wasted years. Biden has laughed, huffed and interrupted throughout the debate thus far, taking the wrong cue from last week’s debate. Romney never came off as scorning Obama, but Biden has nearly every time. As Ryan related a story about Romney helping a family in need, Biden had to stifle his disdain. Ryan fired off one line of the night when he said that “As the vice president well knows, sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” Biden retorted: “But I always say what I mean.” So the middle class really has been “buried” during the Obama years…? Biden insinuated that the story of Romney helping a family in need was a lie: “If you believe that soliloquy, I have a bridge to sell ya.”