2 minutes. They lock eyes from across the room, and neither man can look away. Big flag pin and little flag pin. Bulky suit and fitted suit. Lots of hair and little hair. A match is made, a connection struck. Their whitened smiles blind under the TV lights. Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, son and father, downright delighted to see each other. They rush to shake hands at the center of the stage. They take their seats. They prepare to destroy each other.
3 minutes. Debate moderator Martha Raddatz begins with a direct question for the Vice President. Wasn’t last month’s attack in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador a massive intelligence failure? “It was a tragedy,” says Biden. He promises to bring perpetrators to justice and figure out what went wrong. Than he settles into the matter at hand: what President Obama failed to do a week ago. “The President of the United States has led with a steady hand and clear vision. Governor Romney, the opposite,” Biden says. He notes shaky hands and poor eyesight by the Republican nominee on Iraq, Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
5 minutes. Ryan has a memorized response for this topic. He knocks Obama on Libya, rebuts Biden point by point on Iraq and Afghanistan and then launches into a broad riff on the “unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.” He says Obama didn’t speak out for democracy in Iran and then attacks Obama for supporting a bipartisan deal in 2011 that threatens future Pentagon cuts if Congress can’t agree on deficit reduction. Of course, Ryan supported that same deal, but he doesn’t mention that. Biden, in the split screen, finds all of this hilarious. His teeth are blinding.
8 minutes. “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden says when Ryan is done. “Why is that so?” asks Raddatz. “Because not a single thing he said is accurate,” Biden shoots back. He tries to respond to everything Ryan just said, ending with, “Look, I, I, just, I mean, these guys bet against America all the time.” He is not talking about China or Iran. He is talking about the Republican Party.
11 minutes. Raddatz presses on Libya. Biden says the White House never tried to hide information about the attack, then pivots again. “Even before we knew what happened to the ambassador, the governor was holding a press conference … That’s not presidential leadership,” he says, getting the timeline wrong. The Romney press conference came after it was clear the ambassador had died.
12 minutes. Raddatz has another zinger of a question, trying to tweak Ryan on Romney’s “No Apology” foreign policy mantra. “Should the U.S. have apologized for Americans burning Korans in Afghanistan? Should the U.S. apologize for U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses?” “Oh, gosh, yes,” says Ryan, dodging the trap. Then he starts attacking Obama again.
13 minutes. Biden just can’t get enough of Ryan when he talks. It’s as if Ryan is playing footsie with him under the table. He smirks, he grins, he sticks up his chin. But for now, he does not interrupt. He lets Ryan go on to answer another question about what Romney would do regarding Iran. The answer: pretty much exactly what Obama is doing regarding Iran, though Romney would have started in 2007, two years before Obama took office.
15 minutes. Biden finally gets a chance to release his disbelief. “It’s incredible,” he says about everything Ryan just said. On Iran specifically, Biden charges that Romney is edging the country toward a careless war. “All this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk. What are they talking about?”
17 minutes. Raddatz starts to lose control. The candidates talk over each other. Biden seems overwrought at everything Ryan says and keeps zinging out facts. Ryan steadily lays down his campaign’s talking points. Eventually Biden can’t take it anymore, so he swears with a euphemism. “This is a bunch of stuff,” he says. “What does that mean?” Raddatz asks. “It’s Irish,” says Ryan, helpfully.
19 minutes. It keeps going. Ryan with talking points. Biden with factual rebuttals and disbelief. “I don’t know what world this guy’s living in,” Biden says at one point. “Facts matter,” he repeats a couple of times. The exchange ends with Ryan criticizing former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, a Republican who served in the same position under George W. Bush, for saying a war with Iran could be catastrophic. “He is right,” says Biden. “It undermines our credibility,”Ryan responds.
22 minutes. After many more minutes of the same, Biden gets the final word on Iran. “We’ve made it clear, big nations can’t bluff,” he says. “This President doesn’t bluff.” In other words, you can vote Democratic or Republican in November. But both of them say they are dead serious about their willingness to go to war with Iran.
23 minutes. New topic: unemployment. Biden has a speech prepared, and it’s a good one. It says Romney is looking out for the wealthy and talking down about the 47% of the country that includes Biden’s late mom and dad, who pay more effective tax than Romney pays federal tax. “It’s about time they take some responsibility,” Biden says about the rich.
25 minutes. Ryan has a rejoinder prepared. “You know what the unemployment rate in Scranton is today?” he asks Biden of his Pennsylvania hometown. “I sure do,” says Biden. “It’s 10%,” Ryan continues. “You know what it was the day you guys came in — 8.5%. That’s how it’s going all around America.” Biden can’t take this. “You don’t read the statistics,” he shoots back. “That’s not how it’s going. It’s going down.” Both men are right. The rate is generally higher than when Obama took office. But it is not going up anymore. It is going down.
27 minutes. Ryan works to humanize Romney: “I was talking to a family in Northborough, Massachusetts, the other day, Sheryl and Mark Nixon. Their kids were hit in a car crash, four of them. Two of them, Rob and Reed, were paralyzed. The Romneys didn’t know them. They went to the same church. They never met before. Mitt asked if he could come over on Christmas. He brought his boys, his wife and gifts. Later on, he said, ‘I know you’re struggling, Mark. Don’t worry about their college. I’ll pay for it.’ When Mark told me this story, because, you know what, Mitt Romney doesn’t tell these stories.” Something suspicious here. How did Ryan end up talking to them? Just campaigning in Northborough one day?
29 minutes. Biden isn’t buying Ryan’s claim that Romney misspoke about the 47%. “If you heard that little soliloquy on 47% and you think he just made a mistake, then I think — I got a bridge to sell you,” he says. Then to Ryan: “Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility.”
32 minutes. Ryan charges the Obama Administration with “crony capitalism and corporate welfare” in the 2009 stimulus bill. Biden responds by pointing out that Ryan sought stimulus funds to create jobs in his district. “I love my friend here,” Biden says, which is also Irish.
33 minutes. Medicare and entitlements come next. Ryan speaks about the old people in his own family and talks about honoring promises and reforming programs without offering any specifics. Then he says Obama took $700 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. Ryan wants to take the same $700 billion away from Medicare to finance other things, including deficit reduction.
34 minutes. Biden looks straight into the camera for the first time tonight. He wants an ally in calling Romney out on the claim that Obama “cut” Medicare. “Any senior out there, ask yourself: Do you have more benefits today?” Biden asks. “You do. If you’re near the doughnut hole, you have $800 — $600 more to help your prescription-drug costs. You get wellness visits without copays. They wipe all of this out, and Medicare goes, becomes insolvent in 2016.” Then Biden lays into the Ryan plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
39 minutes. This goes on for a while and keeps getting hung up on the fact that these two men do not share a common reality, which is normally required for a debate. “It would deny seniors,” Ryan says. “Seniors are not denied,” Biden says. “Absolutely,” Ryan says. “They are not denied,” Biden says, before turning back to the camera. “Look, folks, all you seniors out there, have you been denied choices?” It goes on like this for a while. The two men squabble. Then Biden asks old people at home to talk back to their televisions.
43 minutes. Biden is clearly more amped up than his campaign needs him to be. But he seems to be scoring points. Ryan at times looks uncomfortable. In his oversize suit, with his young face and all the rosy makeup on his cheeks, he kind of resembles a marionette. The two work their way through vouchers and privatizing Social Security and then start in on taxes.
51 minutes. “Not mathematically possible,” Biden says about the Romney promise to lower income-tax rates by 20% without decreasing total revenue or increasing the share paid by the middle class. “It is mathematically possible. It’s been done before,” says Ryan. “It has never been done before,” says Biden. They are arguing over whether lower taxes can produce higher revenue. “Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth,” says Ryan. “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?” says Biden.
53 minutes. Raddatz points out that Romney also supports massive increases in defense spending, which would add to the U.S. debt. But Ryan won’t engage the question. He keeps talking about the possibility of Pentagon cuts, the ones he voted for but now wants to blame on Obama.
56 minutes. On to Afghanistan. The discussion seems to center on which candidate has had more personal experiences talking with troops on the ground. “First time I was there, in 2002, it was amazing to me,” says Ryan. “I’ve been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq 20 times,” shoots back Biden. Both tickets have basically the same plan for the country: withdrawal by 2014. Ryan endorses the date but says calling it a deadline would “broadcast to our enemies, ‘Put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back.’ ” So it’s not a deadline, just a timeline for withdrawing troops. Don’t overthink it.
68 minutes. Next up is Syria, another foreign war in which the differences between Biden and Ryan are both fierce and hard to identify. “What would my friend do differently?” Biden asks of Ryan, who is still not his friend. “If you notice, he never answers the question.” Ryan says President Romney would not “be going through the U.N. in all of these things.” But Biden points out that there are a lot of things Obama is doing on Syria that do not go through the U.N. So Ryan says, “What we should have done earlier is work with those freedom fighters, those dissidents in Syria. We should not have called Bashar Assad a reformer.” Biden wonders aloud who in the White House ever called Assad a reformer.
74 minutes. Raddatz asks each candidate to reflect on his Catholic faith and the issue of abortion. Ryan says he and his wife nicknamed their firstborn child Bean because of his appearance in his seven-week ultrasound. He says he is pro-life and that Obama is “assaulting religious liberties.” Biden says he is personally pro-life, “but I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here.” Biden points out that Ryan has not supported rape and incest exemptions in the past. Ryan says, “The policy of a Romney Administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. ”
80 minutes. Raddatz zeroes in: “If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried? ” she asks Ryan. As a political matter, there is no right answer to this question for Ryan. So he says, “We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision — that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.”
81 minutes. Raddatz ends with a softball question about the nastiness of the race and how it looks to men in uniform. So both candidates praise the men in uniform and express disappointment with the tone of the race, the previous 81 minutes notwithstanding. Then Ryan reverts to his stump speech, laying into Obama’s “string of broken promises.” And Biden lays into Ryan’s budget that “eviscerated all the things that the middle class cares about.”
87 minutes. Another odd question: Raddatz asks both men what they can give to the country that no one else can. Ryan says he will offer solutions to the country’s problems. Biden says, “I never say anything I don’t mean. Everybody knows, whatever I say, I do.”
89 minutes. Closing statements. Biden doesn’t look directly into the camera or thank Ryan for the spirited debate. Ryan does both.
92 minutes. It’s over. Kids and families for both men mob the stage. The warm fuzzy smiles return. But somehow, that initial love has faded. At least they will never have to debate again. Next up, Tuesday, Oct. 16, in New York, Romney and Obama return to the ring.