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.
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.
Ryan said he too was from small-town America and that the Obama economy simply wasn’t working for many people. “Twenty-three million Americans are struggling for work today. Fifteen percent of Americans are living in poverty today. This is not what a real recovery looks like,” he said. “We need real reforms for a real recovery, and that's exactly what Mitt Romney and I are proposing.”
If Obama seemed oddly reluctant to defend himself last week, Biden couldn’t have seemed more prepared to pounce. He interrupted Ryan a fair number of times. The tactic likely didn’t win him many supporters. And Ryan didn’t likely win many hearts, either, when he countered with a bit of snark: “Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground.”
The discussion around Medicare and Social Security policy got particularly dense, with Ryan, particularly, wielding piles of figures and charges that the Democrats used “scare tactics.” Biden responded that history showed the Republicans could not be trusted to protect the entitlement programs. It’s hard to imagine that either side won or ceded much ground on this terrain, as both men interrupted each other repeatedly, with neither gaining the upper hand.
The queries from Raddatz aimed at both men were considerably more pointed than the open-ended questions that Lehrer asked in last week’s debate. If Biden had to open with the difficult matter of the administration’s changing explanations of the Libya tragedy, Raddatz later pressed Ryan hard to be specific about tax loopholes the Republicans would close. “Do you have the specifics? Do you have the math?” said the ABC News correspondent. “Do you know exactly what you're doing?”
If he had those specifics, the congressman wasn’t offering them, choosing to speak broadly about the GOP ticket’s broad plan for a 20% tax cut, with loopholes to be filled later in cooperation with the Congress.
The veep candidates distinguished themselves in another sense — in how little they spoke, at least in broad, biographical terms — about the two men whom they are supporting.
Ryan made an exception about 20 minutes into the contest, when Ryan told the story of a Massachusetts family whom Romney aided after a car accident left several grievously injured. Romney brought Christmas gifts and helped pay for a child’s college education, Ryan said. The candidate’s conclusion suggested the Republicans still feel the sting of Romney’s secretly videotaped “47%” remark.
“Mitt Romney's a good man,” Ryan said. “He cares about 100% of Americans in this country.”
Biden ended promising that the Democrats, the known quantity, are “not going to rest until that playing field is leveled” for all Americans. Ryan’s closing said Obama and Biden had already had their chance and blown it. “At a time when we have a jobs crisis in America, wouldn't it be nice to have a job creator in the White House?” he asked.
Americans will have to decide, but it’s likely more of their answers will come from the presidential contenders, not their seconds who fought to something close to a draw.