In a strong, substantial debate marked by testy exchanges as well as mutual personal respect, Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan spent 90 minutes Thursday night arguing about everything from the nation’s economy to abortion to Iran and Syria.
If the job of both men was to support and boost the candidacies of their respective presidential ticket partners, then both succeeded in what likely will be seen as the most important vice presidential debate in US political history.
Mr. Biden strongly questioned the major policies espoused by Mitt Romney, injecting vigor and humor into a campaign tripped up by President Obama’s lackluster and somewhat sour performance in his first presidential debate. Mr. Ryan held his own in the rhetorical cut and thrust of political disputation with his far more experienced opponent, showing what some analysts found to be a surprisingly detailed knowledge of foreign policy and national security issues.
Much of the success of the debate was attributed to moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who deftly kept the two men on track through the nine subjects covered in 10-minute segments – permitting enough back-and-forth to keep it a real debate without allowing the disputants to take over, as many observers had noted about the first presidential debate moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS.
In terms of style, both Biden and Ryan seemed to be natural. At times, Ryan – who acknowledges his love of Power Point presentations – bordered on wonkishness. Some post-debate analysts found Biden bordering on condescension to his much younger opponent, chuckling and rolling his eyes at times as Ryan spoke.
"That is a bunch of malarkey," the vice president declared as Ryan criticized the Obama administration’s foreign policies. "Not a single thing he said is accurate," Biden said when Ryan had laid into the administration for what he said was its failure to provide adequate security at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy personnel were killed last month in a terrorist attack.
For his part, Ryan looked squarely at Biden when he said, “I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don't interrupt each other” – the reference to “lost ground” being Obama’s drop in most polls since the presidential debate. Still, Ryan himself did not hesitate to butt in from time to time, although both men were quick to shut up when Ms. Raddatz respectfully but sternly moved them on.
Again and again, Biden emphasized his (and Obama’s) commitment to the middle class, contrasting their political philosophy and policies with that of Romney and Ryan – specifically Romney’s recent controversial comment about the “47 percent” as well as the impact on working Americans of the budget plan Ryan (who chairs the House Budget Committee) has crafted.
“You’ve probably detected my frustration with their attitude about the American people,” Biden said. “He’s talking about my mother and father. He’s talking about the places I grew up.”
As he and Obama have done regularly in their campaign, Biden hammered the Republican ticket for what he said its policies would mean to the middle class on taxes and entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare.
Ryan reeled off the failings of Obama’s four years in office as he and Romney see it – everything from jobs and economic growth to not doing enough to head off Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.
"It makes us look more weak," Ryan said. "It projects weakness."
In the last minutes of the debate, moderator Raddatz asked both men to talk personally about how their religion – they’re both Roman Catholics – has informed their position on abortion.
Biden said that while he accepts his church’s position that life begins at conception, “I just refuse to impose that on others.”
“I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can’t control their body,” he said. “It’s a decision between them and their doctor.”
In the past, Ryan has opposed all abortion, but in the debate he stressed that “the policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.”
When Ryan raised the issue of “unelected judges” deciding such matters, that quickly got into a brief discussion of a president’s power to nominate US Supreme Court justices and the future of the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade.
Unlike the first presidential debate, which virtually all observers said Romney had won, instant analysis showed the Ryan-Biden encounter ended up a near-draw.
Forty-eight percent of registered voters who were watching said Ryan won, while 44 percent said Biden won, according to a CNN/ORC International Poll. The sampling error was 5 percent.