Democrats came into the vice presidential debate Thursday night feeling discouraged over President Obama’s widely panned debate performance against Mitt Romney last week. They wanted Joe Biden to make things right and show fire. Republicans were buoyed by Romney’s performance and wanted Rep. Paul Ryan to maintain the momentum.
Each side should feel good about their standard bearer. Allowing for partisan bias, I thought Biden helped his cause more than Ryan did his. Ryan is a boyish-looking numbers wonk who showed a deep and wide grasp of data and, surprisingly, held his own on foreign and military policy, even if he was hawkish on just about every conflict in Arab Spring countries. Ryan’s rigid position on abortion and bellicose stance toward Iran and Syria did little to help Romney with women and younger voters.
For the first half hour Biden seemed old; he mangled syntax and spoke in sentence fragments, as if he was trying to inject his talking points into the discussion. He interrupted Ryan and grinned widely when his opponent was answering. Later Biden found his focus and helped Obama by referring to Romney’s revealing admission about 47 percent of Americans. He hammered Ryan on the Republican’s biggest liability: changing Medicare and Social Security. Whenever the subject in campaigns is these two programs, Republicans find themselves standing in a political hole.
Biden was strongest on Afghanistan, saying firmly that the Obama administration and its allies will leave Afghanistan in 2014. When moderator Martha Raddatz asked what they would do if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not step down and continue to slaughter his people, both came up empty. What, didn’t they prepare for this topic?
Ryan rattled the saber at Iran, claiming we had to “change the minds of the Ayatollahs,” and seemed to suggest that bombing nuclear reactors might enlighten them. Each tried to outdo the other on tough sanctions, but Ryan’s language was typically more pugilistic. There must’ve been cheering at Romney HQ when Ryan said Obama was “apologizing” and “projecting weakness” around the world.
Biden, 69, excels at an old-school style of grip-and-grin, hammer-out-a-deal politics that is more about helping people than just running a government. Ryan, 42, is a modern problem solver and student of policy who tried hard to use human examples but his eyes lit up when he talked taxes, budgets, the deficit and macroeconomics.
CNN’s poll showed 47 percent of viewers felt Ryan had won, while 44 percent gave it to Biden. This demonstrates how close the campaign is nationally and how in the three-and-a-half weeks remaining, this debate will quickly recede in the rearview mirrors of the public. But for one night, it was better than watching a Red Sox game.
Dan Payne is WBUR’s Democratic analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.
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