Vice President Joe Biden set a confrontational tone in the Thursday vice presidential debate, referring to Republican opponent Rep. Paul Ryan as a “friend” whose arguments were “malarkey” when his body language suggested those were euphemisms for words that can’t be uttered on network television.
The 90-minute duel in Danville, Ky. was heavy on aggression, but light on the details that might inspire voters to have much optimism about either of their plans to address the sluggish economy, end the Afghan War, navigate through the moral complexities of abortion, or defuse the combustive tensions in the Middle East.
Ryan returned fire without appearing as flustered as Biden, who routinely rolled his eyes, smirked, and broke into cynical laughter whenever the 42-year old Wisconsin congressman spoke. Both flashed a strong attitude that will likely rally their respective bases—an extremely critical factor after Democrats were nonplussed by President Obama’s bumbling performance in last week’s debate against GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
But independent voters got a heavy dose of the negativity that leaves many of them cold to the election. Biden lashed into Romney and Ryan for objecting to the government rescue of the auto industry, while pushing tax breaks geared to the wealthy to the potential detriment of middle class tax incentives and the preservation of entitlement programs like Medicare.
“I’ve never met two guys who are more down on America across-the-board,” Biden said. “Stop talking about how you care about people … Show me a policy where you take responsibility.”
Ryan dismissed the scolding as proof the administration has failed the nation. Unemployment remains historically high and growth dangerously low, he said, while the administration’s foreign policy is “unraveling” after the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the country’s future is jeopardized by the ballooning federal debt caused by an underwhelming $831 billion stimulus program and bankrupting growth of Medicare.
“This is what politicians do when they don’t have a record to run on,” Ryan said.
A CNN survey of 381 registered voters watching the debate found that 48 percent gave Ryan the victory, while 44 percent favored Biden. A separate snap poll by CBS News in a snap poll reported a 50 percent to 31 percent edge for Biden.
Yet neither candidate played to their perceived policy strengths. Biden struggled to justify the national security decisions of the administration that killed Osama bin Laden, while Ryan ducked questions of how a Romney administration would simultaneously cut tax rates, reduce the deficit, and cause gross domestic product to more than double in growth to 4 percent a year.
The debate presented a strange paradox about the role played by the wealthy in the tax system. Ryan correctly pointed out there aren’t enough Americans with incomes above $250,000—the level targeted by Obama—to meaningful reduce the debt, while claiming that this group also received enough tax deductions that Romney could close unnamed loopholes without also penalizing the middle class.
Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News pressed Ryan on which tax deductions would be eliminate to offset the $5 trillion in lost revenues over the next decade by Romney trimming tax rates by 20 percent.
"Do you actually have the specifics, or are you still working on it?" Raddatz asked.
The Republican candidate waltzed around the question in a way that suggested a clear answer: no. “We want to work with Congress on how best to achieve this,” said Ryan, who as House Budget Committee chairman is already supposed to be working with his Capitol Hill colleagues on these kinds of issues.
Biden eagerly tried to sew doubts about the Romney tax plan and a proposal to transform Medicare into a voucher-style program for Americans younger than 55.
“Folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?” Biden said straight into the camera after noting a government study saying the Republican proposal would stick future Medicare recipients with an additional $6,400 a year in costs.
The vice president also stressed that Ryan was a hypocrite—having sent letters to the administration requesting access to stimulus funds that he now lambastes for cronyism and waste.
But Biden appeared less sure-footed on questions about Libya, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, and the fighting to oust Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—nuanced problems that seldom play well to the bluntness of a campaign.
Ryan tore into Biden for the administration not providing more security ahead of the recent Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Obama initially blamed the attack on protests over an internet video about the prophet Mohammed, when it was the result of a coordinated terrorist attack.
“It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack,” Ryan said. “Shouldn’t we have a Marine attachment guarding our ambassador on Benghazi?
The congressman—who has visited Afghanistan but is largely a neophyte on diplomacy—then ripped Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, over the administration’s 2014 deadline for withdrawing troops from that country despite signs that the Taliban could overrun a government known for corruption. Ryan also criticized the administration for not doing more to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Biden countered that the hawkish posturing by Republicans would lead to the U.S. putting more boots on the ground throughout the world—at tremendous expense to taxpayers.
“The last thing America needs is to get in another ground war in the Middle East,” he said.
While they traded blows about foreign policy and the budget, both were largely silent about how to generate jobs or fix the damage caused by the housing collapse—two of the leading issues hanging over the economy. Instead they stuck to their respective philosophies.
“We’re going in the wrong direction. The economy is barely limping along,” Ryan said. “This is not what a real recovery looks like.”
Biden—with his reputation for gaffes—ended the debate by acknowledging he doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean.
“My whole life has been devoted to leveling the playing field for middle class people,” he said. “You probably detected my frustration with their attitude about the American people.”