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.”
After a Biden dissertation on the economy, Ryan said: “Let’s not forget, they came with one-party control” before noting that the Obama plan has not fulfilled any of its promises. As Ryan discussed over 100 criminal investigations ongoing in the Energy Department, Biden interrupted him. Ryan was about one minute into his two-minute answer, and the loveliness on CNN’s scaled dipped sharply. Interruptions for their own sake do not seem to warm the undecided voter’s heart.
At about 32 minutes past the hour, Ryan pushed the CNN loveline meter up near its limit by noting that he favors Social Security and Medicare as programs that have helped his family but are now going bankrupt. ObamaCare, Ryan noted, has accelerated that bankruptcy and will create an unelected bureaucracy that will have as its mission the denial of care for the sick. Ryan tied the threat of ObamaCare both to current retirees and to the coming generation and the CNN meter went back up strong again. Biden responded that the $716 cut to Medicare forced by ObamaCare really is not a cut. The CNN meter flatlined. At about 37 past, Biden accused Ryan of “taking the full four minutes” for his answers. Ryan had spoken two full minutes less than Biden had by that point.
Biden consistently interrupted, shortening Ryan’s answers. Raddatz the alleged moderator let him. But allowing Biden may have been best for the Romney/Ryan goal: The more Biden talked, the worst he did on the CNN meter. Biden’s flashes of anger helped him but not much. Between the chuckling and the teeth flashes, Biden’s demeanor tended to be that of a brawler, not a leader.
Biden did his best when describing the tax cuts that should be made permanent. But as soon as he got partisan and accused Republicans of holding a “middle class tax cut hostage,” he dove on the CNN meter, especially with men. He then tossed out the proven untruth that Romney is proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. Obama campaign deputy manager Stephanie Cutter admitted on CNN this week that that number is not accurate. Yet the vice president used it anyway. When Ryan pointed out that the number is incorrect, Biden cackled in the background.
Raddatz asked Ryan about the specifics of the Romney tax plan, then interrupted him when he started to answer. Ryan eventually was allowed to say that they have a plan in principle but they want to work with Congress to craft and pass it. Raddatz snapped at Ryan, Biden begged to respond, Raddatz cut Ryan’s answer off to let Biden respond. Thus far Raddatz has been an awful and very one-sided “moderator.” At this point a tweet rolled by: “Biden is about as charming as psoriasis.” The debate became a two-on-one game according to another, with Raddatz the long-time Obama chum siding openly with Biden. Ryan, said one tweet, came off as calm and sure despite the barrage of chuckles and interruptions coming at him from two angles.
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.