Moderator Martha Raddatz looks on as Paul D. Ryan and Joe Biden shake hands… (Michael Reynolds / AFP-Getty…)
The vice presidential debate Thursday night will please everyone and no one in the American political universe. It revealed two candidates to be game and able, but produced none of the kind of “Hey, Martha!” moments that might have helped reconfigure the race for the White House.
Democrats will be pleased that their No. 2, Vice President Joe Biden, put some fight back in their ticket. Republicans will be pleased that their No. 2, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, did not shrink from a sometimes aggressive opponent and did not appear out of his depth, even on foreign policy matters where he is far less experienced.
Both accomplished what always must be the primary goal of V.P. contenders — not bringing embarrassment on themselves or their running mates. So it’s on to Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., next Tuesday, where far more consequential squabbling — between President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — will resume.
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That did not mean that the 90-minute “Thrill in the Ville,” from a college stage in little Danville, Ky., did not live up to some of its advance billing. The contrast between the 69-year-old Biden, playing the role of kindly old ward healer, and 42-year-old Ryan, the smart kid looking for a seat at the head of the class, proved as stark as advertised.
Biden led with his considerable emotion and conviction. Ryan countered with lots of numbers and ample conviction of his own. It only took a few minutes for the confrontations to grow fierce. The two had engaged in a spirited back and forth of several minutes about whether the Obama administration could have done more to prevent the deaths of four Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Ryan said the episode was evidence of a larger “unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more – more chaotic and us less safe.” He went on to reel off other troubling hot spots in the Middle East. Biden responded, “With all due respect,” that Ryan’s position was “a bunch of malarkey.”
He said a Ryan budget proposal would have cut embassy security, reminded debate viewers that Romney had jumped in with blame for the administration even before the death toll was known. He concluded: “That’s not presidential leadership.”
The vice president’s emotion didn’t really begin to come through the television screen, though, until he launched a protracted defense of Obama’s economic policies, unlike anything the president himself had to say to a national television audience last week that numbered nearly 70 million viewers.
Debate moderator Martha Raddatz — a far more forceful presence than PBS’ Jim Lehrer in last week’s presidential debate — asked the candidates to talk about how they would get unemployment back in the 6% range, where the Obama administration said it hoped joblessness should be after stimulus spending at the beginning of its term.
It was like someone had pulled a cork out of the Biden bottle. The vice president began by describing an economy “in free fall” when Obama took office, and quickly segued to a tout for the bailout of General Motors, which he noted Romney had opposed. “Romney said, no, let Detroit go bankrupt,” Biden snapped. He described an administration plan to help refinance underwater mortgages. “Gov. Romney said, no, let foreclosures hit bottom,” Biden fumed.
He then hit Romney for his comments about the 47% who don’t pay taxes, saying the people the Republican nominee referred to were people like “my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Gov. Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, not paying any taxes.”
The notion of Romney as the callous rich guy didn’t get an airing at all when the GOP candidate himself appeared last week next to Obama. Biden, a son of Scranton, Pa., who loves to talk about his working-class roots, made sure viewers Thursday night got a full dose.
Ryan did not back down, asking the vice president if he knew what unemployment was in his home town. “10%,” Ryan said, filling in the answer himself. “You know what it was when you guys came in?” Ryan asked. Biden said he didn’t. “8.5%,” Ryan answered, glaring at Biden.