The morning after the spirited vice presidential debate between the sitting VP, Joe Biden, and the Republican who wants his job, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, a new debate has broken out over who came out on top.
Vice President Biden smirked, laughed, and interrupted his way through the 90-minute match at Centre College in Danville, Ky. – irritating to Republicans, who called his behavior disrespectful, and a morale boost to Democrats, who were almost despondent after President Obama’s lackluster performance last week in his first debate with GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
Congressman Ryan, 28 years Mr. Biden’s junior, behaved more politely and, more important, held his own on substance against Biden – particularly noteworthy for a debate that went heavy on foreign policy, not Ryan’s strength. Republicans cheered their man, saying he cleared the bar as “presidential” in that all-important test of whether voters would see him as worthy of being a heartbeat away from the top job.
In insta-polls, voters themselves delivered a split verdict: A CNN/ORC International poll of 381 voters who watched the debate thought Ryan won, 48 percent to 44 percent. A CBS News poll of 431 uncommitted voters went for Biden 50 percent to 31 percent; 19 percent called it a tie.
Biden faced the more urgent task, to rescue Team Obama from what the media echo chamber had elevated into an outright debacle: the Oct. 3 presidential debate. To the chagrin of Democrats, Mr. Obama hadn’t even brought up Romney’s infamous dismissal of the “47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax and won't "take personal responsibility" for their lives.
Biden wasted little time in going there, without being asked. In one response he worked in not only the 47 percent, but also a similar recent comment by Ryan about the 30 percent of Americans who “want the welfare state,” the wealthy Romney’s low personal income tax rate, and GOP pledges not to raise taxes even on the wealthy.
“My friend recently, in a speech in Washington, said 30 percent of the American people are takers,” Biden said. “These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax.”
“I've had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent – it's about time they take some responsibility here,” the vice president continued. “And instead of signing pledges to [anti-tax activist] Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class, we're going to level the playing field.”
One could easily imagine partisan Democrats across the country cheering – and exhaling – in their living rooms and debate-watching parties across the country. This was the “scrapper from Scranton” at his finest – the party’s own “regular Joe” (a native of Scranton, Penn.) fulfilling his role as attack dog and reaching out to the white working-class voters Obama has struggled to attract.
But Ryan was ready – and he landed the biggest zinger of the night.
“With respect to that quote,” Ryan said, referring to the 47 percent, “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way.”
Biden laughed. Ryan got the vice president on his history of gaffes, which at times force the Obama administration off message and into damage control mode.
“But I always say what I mean,” said Biden, smiling.
Ryan also used the opportunity to defend Romney: “We want everybody to succeed. We want to get people out of poverty, in the middle class, on to lives of self-sufficiency. We believe in opportunity and upward mobility.”
The debate moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, launched the session by diving right into the biggest foreign-policy controversy of the moment – last month’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador and three other Americans.
The topic had not come up in last week’s domestic-policy-centered debate, and Ryan was prepared. He spoke of UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s initial statements, that the attack sprung from a protest that was sparked by a YouTube video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, not a coordinated terror attack. Ryan also hit Obama for blaming the video.
“Look, if we are hit by terrorists, we're going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack,” Ryan said.
The debate also provided the usual fodder for nonpartisan fact-checkers – though, to the delight of Democrats, Biden did a fair amount of his own on-the-spot push-back, at times mouthing “not true” or smiling/laughing at Ryan assertions.
Early Friday, Factcheck.org put out a list of what it called “veep debate violations,” starting with this one: “Ryan said Obama’s proposal to let tax rates rise for high-income individuals would ‘tax about 53 percent of small-business income.’ Wrong. Ryan is counting giant hedge funds and thousands of other multimillion-dollar enterprises as ‘small’ businesses.”
Biden, too, got caught misspeaking, per Factcheck.org.
“Biden exaggerated when he said House Republicans cut funding for embassy security by $300 million,” said the organization, a project of the Annenberg School of Public Policy of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “The amount approved for fiscal year 2012 was $264 million less than requested, and covers construction and maintenance, not just security.”
Ms. Raddatz, the moderator and ABC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, also corrected Biden on his assertion that the Obama administration did not know that US diplomats in Libya had requested more security before last month’s attack.
“They wanted more security there," Raddatz interjected. That point had also come out in this week’s congressional hearing on the Benghazi attack.
But Thursday’s debate may be remembered more for its theatrics than for its substance.
The book on the first two debates may have a Goldilocks tinge to it. If Obama was too cold and Biden was too hot, then maybe next Tuesday, when Obama and Romney meet again for the second of their three debates, the president will get it just right. That, at least, is the Democrats’ hope. With one subpar debate performance last week, Obama lost his lead in head-to-head polls against Romney, and he needs a comeback next week to prevent full-on panic among his base.
For Ryan, the articulate, young-gun chairman of the House Budget Committee, Thursday’s debate set the stage, too, for Romney’s next round against Obama.
And, with chatter already starting about the 2016 presidential race, the Oct. 11 debate may even have contained a bit of foreshadowing. Biden has made clear he’s considering a run, and if Romney loses on Nov. 6, Republicans are looking to Ryan as a potential contender. The Wisconsin congressman’s solid performance on Thursday – his first outing on a national debate stage – is sure to boost his stock.