The American vice-presidential hopefuls went at it Thursday night, going toe-to-toe for 90 minutes over domestic and foreign policy. It was great political TV, but don’t expect their debate to have shifted the tide of the campaign. It’s up to the top of the ticket and is still coming down to the wire. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
If the book on Barack Obama was that he gave a listless, discouraging performance in the first presidential debate, no one will say that about Joe Biden’s effort in his vice presidential debate with Congressman Paul Ryan. Even before the debate was over, some wag had tweeted viewers were watching “the Red Bull debate” - or maybe the double espresso encounter.
The two men went at it, hammer and tongs, right from the get-go, talking over each other, scowling, smirking, rolling eyes and generally refusing to cede a millimetre to their antagonist – or often to moderator Martha Raddatz, the veteran ABC News foreign correspondent. Like the way it came out or not, watching this debate was like watching two boxers who stood toe-to-toe for 90 minutes. Bang, wham, smash, crash, pow, boom! Biden was like an old lion - standing ready to smack down his younger opponent, daring to challenge him and tackling Ryan point-by-point, assertion-by-assertion. No quarter given. None.
It was exciting reality television – even for viewers at 3 am South African time. But a larger question remains as to whether or not it was good politics. And a further question is whether Biden’s take-no-prisoners approach helped (or hurt) the Democratic cause, or whether Ryan’s earnestness helped consolidate Mitt Romney’s momentum after his performance in the first presidential debate.
Right from the beginning, the two men clashed over the events in Benghazi, Libya, sanctions against Iran, the various alternative Romney tax cut plans, differing approaches over Medicare and “Obamacare”, military spending – and especially over Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. In an election year that is supposed to be all and only about the American economy, taxes and the future of the American government’s budget, an astonishing amount of time ended up being devoted foreign policy issues.
Viewers watched as the probability of an Iranian nuclear weapon – and the American response to it – became a key difference, even as Ryan ultimately agreed with the vice president that the Obama administration has imposed strong sanctions against Iran and could not identify a clear difference in approach a Romney administration would offer. Similarly, how to achieve an end to the Syrian civil war, get rid of Bashar al Assad and reach a stable resolution in that unhappy country became a clear issue – but one where Paul Ryan failed to advance a distinctly different approach. On Afghanistan, the cleanest distinction came on how to protect the gains of the long-time American intervention before the final draw down with Biden stating emphatically that the American withdrawal would take place in 2014. By contrast, there was very little said about Russia. Or China, which as the preeminent longer-term challenge to American hegemony barely got a mention.
The two candidates clashed vigorously over the American defense budget. Ryan argued a second Obama administration would significantly weaken the country, while Biden kept pointing out that these defense cuts flowed from the impending fiscal cliff that is itself a function of a presidential-congressional budget sequestration agreement that came from their inability to agree on actual budgets going forward.
Finally, of course, the deaths in Benghazi, Libya, came in for their share of vigorous disagreement, with Ryan continuing to insist that the Obama administration had let down the side in providing security for the US ambassador to Libya, who had been visiting the city when he was killed. He insisted the Obama administration has been shifting its understanding and explanation of what had happened, from spontaneous anti-American riot to planned al-Qaeda-style attack on a US facility. Biden, for his part, insisted that the explanation grew more thorough as more information became available.
If foreign policy and national security was much more visible than expected in this verbal brawl, the temperature in the room rose even further when the two men addressed domestic spending, budgetary priorities, the future of Medicare (the government health care plan for the elderly), tax plans and the overall health of the national economy. Ryan tried hard to nail down the Romney campaign’s key positions – just as Biden worked overtime (literally and figuratively) to discredit the Romney tax plan as further punishment of the middle class, the Republican plans for Medicare as punishment for the elderly and their budgetary plans as punishment for the poor, the elderly and anyone else who needs a government helping hand.
As the debate ended, Raddatz put it right to the two candidates asking them how they square their Catholic faith with government policies on abortion. A tough one, that one. Raddatz had saved the hardest question for the end of the debate. While Ryan wanted to keep abortion rights out of the courts (and out of the hands of judges), Biden argued “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, the congressman. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can't control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I'm not going to interfere with that.”
Response to the debate on the CNN website as it came to an end was split 65/35 to Biden, though later polling by the same service showed a roughly even split over who won this encounter. The results will be parsed ad infinitum in the coming hours.
Did this debate change the basics of the election campaign? In a word, No. The vice presidential debates don’t make or break an electoral competition. While Ryan continued to make the case that Romney was a plausible fit for the presidency, Biden just as forcefully put the Obama campaign back in the game. As a result, the race is almost back where it was a couple of weeks ago, neck and neck with less than a month to go – and the two remaining presidential debates likely to make or break the chances of Obama and Romney. DM
Vice-presidential debate transcript, on ABC.com;
“Biden, Ryan trade sharp words on foreign policy, economy during vice-presidential debate,” on The Washington Post;
“Biden and Ryan Quarrel Aggressively in Debate, Offering Contrasts, on The New York Times.
Photo: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan shake hands at the conclusion of the vice presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky, October 11, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Reynolds