Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan sparred Thursday night in a sharp and wide-ranging vice-presidential debate, clashing early and often in a tussle likely to reinvigorate Democrats demoralized by President Barack Obama’s listless performance last week.
While Ryan’s performance was steady and controlled, the night belonged to Biden, for better and for worse. The Vice President displayed the pugnacity and pluck that his boss failed to flash against Mitt Romney. Seizing the debate from the start, Biden marshaled an aggressive defense of the Obama Administration’s record at home and abroad. He promoted the success of the stimulus, praised Obama for his progress unwinding two foreign wars and sought to convince swing voters that the economic recovery was gaining traction.
(MORE: Joe Klein: Biden in Command)
Where Obama pulled punches, Biden swung from his heels, repeatedly invoking Romney’s damning comments about the 47% of Americans who see themselves as “victims” and rely on government. “I’ve had it up to here with this notion that, ‘Forty-seven percent, it’s about time they take some sort of responsibility here,’” Biden said. He chided the Republican ticket for embellishing the shaky state of the economy to score political points and for eliding the GOP’s role in causing the exploding deficits it pins on Obama.
“I’ve never met two guys who are more down on America across the board. We’re told everything’s going bad. There are 5.2 million new jobs, private-sector jobs,” Biden said. “Show me a policy where you take responsibility. And, by the way, they talk about this Great Recession [as] if it fell out of the sky … It came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription-drug benefit on the credit card, a trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy. I was there. I voted against them. I said, ‘No, we can’t afford that.’”
In several testy exchanges, Biden also accused Ryan of twisting the truth. “Not a single thing he said is accurate,” he said after Ryan’s first answer. “That’s a bunch of malarkey,” he exclaimed later, when Ryan attacked Obama for imposing defense cuts that congressional Republicans — including himself — in fact supported. “This is a bunch of stuff,” Biden groused later, prompting moderator Martha Raddatz to ask what he meant. “It’s Irish,” Ryan responded, one of his few moments of humor in a debate whose levity largely consisted of Biden visibly snickering while Ryan spoke.
Early on, the seasoned, silver-haired Biden, 69, appeared to unsettle Ryan, 42, with his combative and sometimes condescending tone. Biden sneered, smiled broadly and shook his head theatrically as Ryan spoke. He interrupted his younger opponent repeatedly, and at times he seemed to regard the House Budget Committee chairman as though he’d mistakenly wandered over from the kids’ table.
What some might have seen as smugness — which Biden kept under wraps while debating Sarah Palin four years ago — could rankle swing voters. It certainly seemed to irk Ryan, who at one point shot back: “I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground.” Ryan, who totes a thin foreign policy résumé, evinced a fluency with world affairs, sparred heatedly with Biden during several exchanges over the drawdown timetable in Afghanistan and the recent consulate attack in Libya. “What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy,” he said. Biden, by contrast, may have gotten the better of the economic realms Republicans expected Ryan to dominate.
It seems unlikely the debate will drastically shake up the race — and certainly not to the degree that Romney’s drubbing of Obama upended the contest. In an instant poll by CNN/ORC, 48% of respondents said Ryan won the debate, while 44% preferred Biden.
But there was no question that Biden dominated the debate, bringing to bear his four decades on Capitol Hill in an animated performance. His broadsides and body slams seemed geared to energize a Democratic base dispirited by Obama’s flop last week, while Ryan’s steady, constrained answers appeared calibrated to appeal to moderate voters the Republican ticket wants to coax into its camp. Whether you preferred the Democrat or the Republican may hinge on whether you found Biden’s forceful performance brilliant or boorish.