Vice President Joe Biden, seeking to repair damage done by President Barack Obama’s subdued debate last week, gave an assertive performance while clashing with Representative Paul Ryan over the direction of the U.S. economy, foreign policy, Medicare and taxes.
Both men met their objectives in their lone debate, as Biden filled in many of the gaps that had triggered Democratic criticism of Obama. Ryan held his ground, and neither committed any unforced errors.
Biden, 69, smirked and talked over the 42-year-old congressman, dismissing his national-security challenges as “malarkey” and rebutting criticism of government spending with Ryan’s own letters seeking federal economic-stimulus funds for his home state of Wisconsin.
Republicans today posted a video showing Biden laughing throughout the debate while Ryan answered questions. Democrats offered a video of their own that presented Ryan as devoid of specifics in his debate performance.
Ryan told reporters he felt “great” as he and his family entered a restaurant for breakfast today in Lexington, Kentucky. Inside, seated with his wife and three children, the Republican vice presidential nominee said he’d anticipated Biden’s aggressive performance.
‘What I Expected’
Asked whether he felt knocked around by the vice president, Ryan said, “No, it was what I expected.” He sidestepped a question about whether he regretted writing the two letters to Biden requesting stimulus funds for his congressional district.
While Biden often referred to Ryan during the debate as “my friend,” last night’s 90-minute event was significantly more adversarial than last week’s face-off between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, the discussion was dominated more by foreign policy than domestic matters. Biden argued that Romney and Ryan were advocating policies that would hurt the middle class, based on a view that the most vulnerable Americans don’t deserve help.
“It shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives,” Biden said, referring to a comment Romney made at a private May fundraiser, a video of which was leaked to the media last month.
Ryan said Romney hadn’t intended to make the statement, alluding to Biden’s own penchant for verbal gaffes.
“The vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” Ryan said to laughter from the audience.
Interrupting, Biden replied: “But I always say what I mean -- and so does Romney.”
Ryan challenged the Obama administration’s foreign policy, especially its handling of the attacks in Libya that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to that country, a month ago.
“It took the president two weeks to acknowledge this was a terrorist attack,” Ryan said. “This is becoming more troubling by the day.”
Ryan said the ambassador should have had a U.S. military detail protecting him and that the situation is an example of the “unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.”
Biden countered that Ryan’s comments were hypocritical because he said the Republican’s own budget proposal called for a $300 million cut to U.S. embassy security.
Under criticism from Ryan for setting a timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Biden said the administration had achieved its top objectives -- having killed Osama bin Laden and “decimated” al-Qaeda -- and offered an emphatic pledge: “We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.”
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who advised Al Gore during his 2000 presidential bid, said that while Ryan had held his own, Biden delivered the more consequential performance that would help “freeze” a tied race and give the president a chance to recover when Obama and Romney meet again Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
“It was like Smoking Joe Biden -- the intensity and volume of the punches that were thrown by Biden was remarkable,” Lehane said. “He did what Democrats needed him to do to win, which is at least to arrest the momentum that the Romney campaign had built up.”
A CNN poll of registered voters scored the showdown as essentially a tie, with 48 percent declaring Ryan the winner and 44 percent siding with Biden. The survey of 381 respondents has a margin of error plus or minus 5 percentage points. A CBS poll of 431 undecided voters showed Biden the winner over Ryan, 50 percent to 31 percent, with a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
“This one most certainly made Obama-Biden supporters feel much better about themselves and their chances than the first presidential debate,” said Bruce Gronbeck, professor emeritus of political communication at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “The Republicans probably didn’t lose any ground this evening, but it’s unlikely that they gained any, either.”
Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who advised Steve Forbes during his 2000 presidential run, said the debate was “largely a draw,” on the issues, yet Biden may have harmed his ticket’s chances with his attitude.
“His demeanor and his posturing -- all that giggling and faked anger -- I think just comes off as condescending and rude, which is unappealing particularly to undecided voters, which is what it’s all about right now,” Mueller said.
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, dismissed questions about whether Biden’s gestures and smirks went too far.
“It was appropriate for him to show passion,” he told reporters after the debate. “When the other side is spending their time talking about facial gestures and laughing, you know they had a bad night.”
Biden and Ryan each pledged that their parties’ proposals would bring U.S. unemployment below 6 percent, a shared goal that was one of the few items of agreement.
“We can and we will get it under 6 percent,” Biden said, without giving a time frame to do that. Ryan said such a goal is the “entire premise” of his team’s economic plan.
Unemployment in September fell to 7.8 percent, the lowest level since Obama took office in January 2009. Only one president -- Ronald Reagan -- has been re-elected since World War II with the rate above 6 percent.
The debate was at times a wonky recitation of statistics and studies. It also presented voters with a stark choice about the role of government in American society.
Ryan argued that Biden and Obama have taken the economy in “the wrong direction.” He turned to Scranton, Pennsylvania, the vice president’s hometown and frequent setting for stories Biden tells on the campaign trail about his working-class upbringing as the son of a used-car salesman. The metropolitan area’s jobless rate has climbed from 8.5 percent in January 2009 when Obama took office to 10 percent this August, Ryan said.
“That’s how it’s going all around America,” the Republican continued, sparking an immediate retort from Biden.
“You don’t read the statistics -- that’s not how it’s going,” the vice president said of the national unemployment rate. “It’s going down.”
The national jobless rate, which was 7.8 percent when Obama took office, peaked at 10 percent in October 2009.
Biden accused Romney and Ryan of failing to protect the middle class, saying they were focused on lowering tax rates for the highest earners and were out to weaken Medicare.
“They’re holding hostage the middle-class tax cut to the super wealthy,” Biden said. “This is unconscionable.”
Ryan said there aren’t enough high earners to cover all the spending planned by the administration. “Watch out, middle class: The tax bill is coming to you,” Ryan said.
The vice president attacked the Republican ticket’s sincerity in protecting Medicare and Social Security benefits for the elderly. He swept from Republican opposition to the original Medicare legislation to Romney’s and Ryan’s support for shifting the health-care insurance plan for the elderly from a fixed benefit to a “premium support” plan.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that a plan Ryan proposed, and Romney said he would sign, would cost Americans under 55 an additional $6,400 per year in out-of-pocket costs when they became eligible, Biden said. Romney and Ryan since have introduced a new plan that would allow seniors to buy into the traditional Medicare plan instead.
“Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?” Biden said.
Ryan dismissed Biden’s criticism as an effort to “scare people” and said, “They haven’t put a credible solution on the table.”
The debate closed with the first direct engagement by the candidates on the issue of abortion.
Biden and Ryan, both Roman Catholics, were prompted to explain what role their faith has played in their personal views on abortion.
Ryan said his anti-abortion stance is informed by his faith and “reason and science,” citing his experience viewing his unborn child on an ultrasound.
Biden said while he accepts the church’s doctrine that life begins at conception in his own personal life, “I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here.” He said abortion is a decision between women and their doctors, a position legitimized by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling.
Asked if Americans should be concerned that a Romney administration would seek to roll back abortion rights, Ryan said, “We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision” -- a reassurance Biden called into question.
“The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees,” Biden said. “That’s how close Roe v. Wade is.”
David Axelrod, Obama’s top campaign strategist, told reporters after the debate that Ryan had been “on the run from start to finish” and had refused to provide specific answers, including how the Romney-Ryan ticket would pay for its tax plan.
“He came and he had practiced his lines, but when it came to actually answering questions, he had no answers,” Axelrod said.
The debate provided a sharp contrast between the two candidates, and Biden didn’t respond well to Ryan’s command of the facts and his compelling case for a Romney presidency, Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters.
“You saw that the vice president couldn’t defend against a fact-based critique of the administration’s failed policies and couldn’t put forward a vision for what they would do for a second term,” Gillespie said.
Biden is scheduled today to take the fight directly to Ryan’s political base with campaign stops in Wisconsin, while the Republican vice presidential candidate will head to Ohio.