Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s 90-plus minute debate Thursday reflected the job they seek — important but not critical, more like a first-round playoff game than the Super Bowl.
And both candidates responded with spirited, firm arguments over issues ranging from Medicare and tax cuts to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya. Both argued facts and projections that may have bewildered millions of voters, sometimes fudging data to make points.
Each interrupted the other, although Biden did it more often.
There were aggressive moments. When the debate veered into facts and figures, Ryan’s familiarity with policy was clear; Biden’s folksy demeanor seemed more appealing when the discussion moved to the impact of government policies on families.
Each had a different job. Biden sought to stop the erosion of support after Barack Obama’s poor performance Oct. 3, while Ryan wanted to introduce himself to undecided voters who don’t follow politics closely and may not know him well.
Both appeared to succeed. Biden was aggressive where Obama was passive, while Ryan stayed confident and unruffled.
Above all, both candidates wanted to avoid a major gaffe — Biden’s embarrassing campaign trail hyperbole, or Ryan’s tendency to stray from the facts. At the end of the night, both seemed to have dodged those dangerous potholes, although Biden’s sometimes dismissive demeanor will be a topic today.
Here’s a look at what the two men said and how they said it.Substance
Early in the debate, Biden had to defend the growing concern over the facts in the attack on the Libyan embassy — and while he did it well, it was still a response to what most agree was a foreign policy and intelligence blunder.
In a debate, defending a mistake is always a difficult task. “Whatever mistakes were made will not be made again,” Biden said.
Biden did better on the exchange over sanctions against Iran. Mitt Romney’s proposals to prevent a nuclear Iran are relatively similar to Obama’s, with perhaps a greater emphasis on threats of military intervention. But it wasn’t clear from Ryan’s answers how tougher talk alone would quickly affect the Iranians’ efforts to improve their nuclear capability.
Ryan seemed more confident in later discussions of foreign policy, especially Afghanistan, where his mastery of detail was evident, and Syria. Again, though, the Romney campaign has basically endorsed the White House’s withdrawal schedule in Afghanistan, something Ryan conceded.
Biden’s ironclad promise to bring troops out of the country in 2014 was likely well-received in a large part of the electorate.
The pair’s discussion of the middle class, taxes and spending was probably a draw — and hard to fully understand, since the candidates flung charge and counter-charge with little context or, at times, logic.
Biden effectively charged Republicans with trying to “voucherize” Medicare and privatize Social Security, but Ryan was better on the long-range facts: Both programs must be reformed eventually, a point he made several times. “Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt,” Ryan said. “These are indisputable facts.”
Biden did not explain how the status quo in both programs could be sustained.
Ryan’s mastery of budget detail outshines that of virtually any other elected official in Washington. At the same time, Biden had obviously studied his briefing books, was ready with facts to support his own arguments, and held his own in exchanges over details of domestic policy.
And Ryan whiffed in explaining how he can make Romney’s tax plans add up.
The two debated the divisive issue of abortion, and both responded with sincerity and thought. Ryan endorsed the Romney abortion exceptions for rape and incest, exceptions he has not supported in the past.
But the two candidates’ positions on the issue are well-known by almost all voters, so it isn’t clear how important those answers will be for those still making their decisions.Style
Biden smiled far too often. Ryan told too many anecodotes to explain policy points, and at times seems too rehearsed.
Biden never has that problem. But his interruptions and dismissive attitude toward Ryan were often distracting.
The vice president was clearly more animated and focused than the man at the top of the ticket was in the first debate. He was also eloquent when discussing his family and the death of his first wife in a car accident.
Ryan delivered the funniest line in the debate, after Biden raised the issue of Romney’s statements about 47 percent of the electorate.
“With respect to that quote, I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” he said, provoking the only laughter of the night.
But he also made the sharpest comment, suggesting Biden was under “duress” in the debate because of Obama’s performance last week.
Ryan was quite effective at the end when he focused attention on the Obama record, particularly statements the Democratic candidate made in 2008.
The result? A slight edge to Biden, largely because he did better than Obama — a critical improvement for the Democratic ticket.
By the way, I’d gladly have a beer with either man. I’d bring a notebook.