Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin tangled over the Middle East, the economy, taxes and more in a scrappy back-and-forth Thursday night in their only debate.
It was a remarkably lively exchange of scoffing, eye-rolling, smirking and mocking chuckles as the vice presidential rivals argued at a table in the 90-minute face-off at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
A spat over income taxes captured the tone, toggling between combative and jocular. Ryan sought to explain how Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would cut tax rates across the board by 20%, but make up for the lost revenue by getting rid of loopholes and deductions.
“Can I translate?” Biden interrupted.
“We want to work with Congress on how best to achieve this,” Ryan resumed.
Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked the Wisconsin congressman whether he could “guarantee this math will add up.”
“Absolutely,” Ryan responded.
Not so, Biden stated. Romney’s plan, according to the Democratic vice president, would inevitably require pain for the middle class, such as the loss of tax breaks on mortgage interest and college tuition.
“Is he wrong about that?” Raddatz asked.
“He is wrong about that,” Ryan replied.
After trying to explain why, Ryan added, “Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth.”
“Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy,” Biden interjected.
So it went for the full hour and a half as Biden and Ryan fought at a steady rat-a-tat pace over almost every topic raised.
It started right at the top when Raddatz, a veteran foreign correspondent, asked Biden whether there had been a “massive intelligence failure” in the fatal assault last month on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
“Whatever mistakes were made will not be made again,” Biden said of the attack in Libya, before pivoting to criticizing Romney on a gamut of national security matters.
Biden credited President Obama for ending the Iraq war, saying Romney thought “we should have left 30,000 troops there.” He faulted Romney for objecting early on to Obama’s setting a 2014 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and for saying he “wouldn’t move heaven and earth” to capture Osama bin Laden.
“The president of the United States has led with a steady hand and clear vision,” Biden said. “Gov. Romney, the opposite.”
Ryan sighed. After saying he mourned the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the Libya attack, the Wisconsin congressman criticized Obama’s response to the assault.
“It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack,” the Wisconsin congressman said. (Obama labeled the incident an “act of terror” during his remarks on Sept. 12 in the White House Rose Garden.)
A Romney administration, Ryan said, would send Marines to protect an outpost like the one in Benghazi.
“Look, if we are hit by terrorists, we’re going to call it for what it is — a terrorist attack,” he said.
Ryan also castigated Obama’s administration for its evolving accounts of the Libya attack, first described as the outgrowth of a protest against an anti-Muslim video on the Internet. “This is becoming more troubling by the day,” Ryan said.
Turning to Iran, Ryan called Obama ineffective on foreign policy while Biden, shown on a split screen on television, laughed silently and shook his head.
“This administration has no credibility on this issue,” Ryan said of Iran’s nuclear program. “It’s because this administration watered down sanctions, delayed sanctions, tried to stop us from putting the tough sanctions in place.”
Ryan also criticized Obama for not agreeing to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu while he was in New York City for a United Nations meeting, but appearing the same day on ABC’s “The View.”
“This is a bunch of stuff,” Biden said.
“What does that mean, a bunch of stuff?” Raddatz asked.
“It’s Irish,” Ryan chimed in.
“We Irish call it malarkey,” Biden said.
He said Obama had been on an hourlong call with Netanyahu before the Israeli prime minister headed to the U.N., and criticized Romney for not laying out a solid plan on Iran.
“Facts matter, Martha,” Biden told the moderator.
When Raddatz moved onto the economy, Biden went back on the attack, bringing up Romney’s comments on 47% of Americans being dependent on government. Defending Obama for the auto industry bailout, Biden said Romney had wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt.
“But it shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47% of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives,” Biden said.
(Romney did not actually make the comment about Detroit going bankrupt. It was a headline that a newspaper editor placed on an op-ed essay that Romney wrote.)
“I’ve had it up to here with this notion that 47%, it’s about time they take some responsibility here. And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class, we’re going to level the playing field. We’re going to give you a fair shot again.”
Ryan responded that the country was going in the wrong direction, reminding Biden that the unemployment rate of his own hometown had grown to 10% from 8.5% since Obama took office.
“Twenty-three million Americans are struggling for work today,” Ryan said. “Fifteen percent of Americans are living in poverty today. This is not what a real recovery looks like.”
He went on to tell a story about Romney meeting a struggling family and offering to pay for a student’s college education out of his own pocket.
On abortion, the contrast between the candidates — both of whom are Catholic — was made stark when Raddatz asked them about their positions, and how their personal lives had shaped their opinions on the matter.
Ryan talked about seeing his daughter Liza as a small bean on an ultrasound.
“The policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” he said.
He criticized Obama’s administration for requiring insurance plans for employees of religious institutions, such as Catholic schools and hospitals, to cover contraception.
Biden said he had the same personal beliefs as Ryan, but that Ryan’s facts were wrong.
“Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life,” he said. “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, the congressman.”
With polls showing a spike in support for Romney over the last week, the stakes were high for Biden. He faced pressure to undo damage inflicted on the Democratic ticket by Obama with his flat performance in the debate with Romney last week in Denver; Obama later called it a “bad night.”
For Ryan, 42, the debate was a chance to build on the momentum that Romney has gained.
Biden, 69, served as a U.S. senator from Delaware for 36 years, with stints as chairman of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees.
Normally, running mate debates have minimal impact, despite legendary moments such as Lloyd Bentsen’s cutting “you’re no Jack Kennedy” insult of Dan Quayle in 1988 and Bob Dole’s remark to Walter Mondale in 1976 about troops killed in “Democrat wars.” More than three decades of polling show vice presidential debates to be largely irrelevant to election results, Gallup reported this week.
“Should either Biden or Ryan achieve as unambiguous a win in Kentucky as Romney did in Denver, the vice presidential debate this year could … be an exception,” Gallup analyst Andrew Dugan wrote in an essay on historical polling patterns.
For top-of-the-ticket debates, the Obama-Romney matchup in Denver was a rare case of one that changed a campaign’s trajectory, at least for now. Polls taken in the aftermath show the two running neck-and-neck in national polls and Romney gaining in some of the battleground states that will likely decide the election.