Biden v. Ryan: The Old Pro Takes On the Lying Kid

In a lively contrast to last week’s presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, tonight’s match-up between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican rival Rep. Paul Ryan offered moments of riveting television as Biden used his populist persona to full effect against the wonkish and prevaricating Ryan.

In a discussion surprisingly heavy on foreign policy, the two also sparred over the federal budget, Medicare and reproductive rights -- with Ryan making the surprising claim that the courts should have no role in deciding the legality of abortion.

With the first few moments, it seemed that the whole mood of the liberal blogosphere turned from despair to elation amid a chorus of “Attaboy!” -- especially among those who gathered on Twitter and other social media. And unlike Obama, Biden held no fire on the subject of Romney's infamous comments about the 47 percent of the American people who he described as victim-conscious drags on the economy.

At one point, in an exchange in which Ryan conflated Iran's reported production of fissile material with what he said were its advances in actually weaponizing that material, Biden replied, addressing moderator Martha Raddatz, "Facts matter, Martha...Facts matter." Obama supporters, long frustrated by the Republicans' campaign of mendacity, quickly adopted the line as a theme. 

The debate pitted Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman with the earnest demeanor and a penchant for half-truths, against Biden, the former U.S. senator who has the smile of a used car salesman, but a reputation for calling it as he sees it.

Raddatz of ABC News proved to be a much more engaged and challenging moderator than PBS’s Jim Lehrer, who all but sat dumbfounded during the first presidential debate. In fact, appraisals of Raddatz’s performance no doubt benefited from the comparison.

The ghost of Jack Kennedy

Sitting across from Biden, Ryan sometimes looked like a kid sent to do a man’s job, wearing his father’s suit. But on the split screen that is now the standard in televised debates, Biden’s dismissive laughter and broad smile sometimes came across as a bit smarmy.

The contrast in the personalities of the two men seemed to put Ryan at a disadvantage. Biden, sometimes a bit too comfortable in his own skin, didn’t hesitate to interrupt when Ryan uttered a mischaracterization, or to mock his young opponent when he inadvertently left Biden an opening. 

During a tussle over taxes, Ryan, after fielding volley upon volley from Biden, sought to make his case for tax-cutting on the backs of past presidents.

“Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth,” Ryan said. “Ronald Reagan--

“Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?” Biden interjected, in a quick-footed move that brought to mind the famous exchange between Dan Quayle and Democratic vice presidential contender Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, when the much older and more seasoned senator responded to Quayle’s invocation of Kennedy by saying, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

On the matter of a tax increase on people with incomes above $250,000, Ryan made the familiar argument that such an increase would hamper job creation, because many small businesses file their taxes as individuals. Biden made mincemeat of that claim by saying that 97 percent of small business owners earn less than $200,000, and that the kinds of small businesses Ryan was talking about were actually hedge funds.

Pressed by Raddatz on how he proposed to pay for his campaign's proposed 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, Ryan, as he has done on the campaign trail, demurred on providing details.

Ryan tried to lay the blame for the bad economy at Biden's feet, and even challenged the latest dip in unemployment numbers because jobless rates remain high in towns such as his native Janesville, Wis., and Biden's hometown of Scranton, Penn.

At that, Biden literally threw up his hands in a grand gesture, saying: "[T]hey talk about this Great Recession if it fell out of the sky, like, 'Oh, my goodness, where did it come from?' It came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on the credit card, a trillion-­dollar tax cut for the very wealthy. I was there. I voted against them. I said, no, we can't afford that." 

Stop talking about how you care about people," Biden said to Ryan, just before the hand-waving moment. "Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility."

With regard to Romney's "47 percent" remarks, Biden insisted that Romney meant what he said, despite his recent walk-back of those comments as "wrong." 

"[I]f you heard that ­­ that little soliloquy on 47 percent and you think he just made a mistake," Biden said, "then... ­I think­­ I got a bridge to sell you.  

The longest war, and an epic 'tragedy'

On the matter of the war in Afghanistan -- our nation’s longest war -- Biden fared less well, unable to muster an adequate rejoinder to Raddatz’s citation of the fact that the U.S. had just passed the milestone of 2,000 U.S. military deaths in the decade-long conflict.

“The primary objective is almost completed,” Biden replied. “Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.”

Ryan did even worse on that question, though, first contesting the administration’s announcement of the drawdown, and then saying that he and Romney actually agreed with the timeframe. He also challenged a military decision to pull troops out of the eastern part of the country, where the fighting is most fierce, which brought a response of incredulity from Biden, who contended that’s exactly where not to put U.S. troops.

There was no discussion of drone warfare, which has killed hundreds of civilians and created an atmosphere of ill will toward the United States throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Biden deftly handled a tough opening question on the apparently inadequate security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the the U.S. ambassador and three staff members died in a militant attack last month, by pivoting to a broader critique of Ryan’s and Romney’s foreign policy. Asked by Raddatz whether or not the attack was “a security failure,” Biden replied, “What is was, it was a tragedy, Martha.”

As Ryan took his turn with a long-winded answer assailing the administration’s handling of the Libya attack, Biden laid in wait, broadly grinning, displaying a set of teeth that looked unnaturally white. Responding to Raddatz's question of whether he thought that Romney's press conference on the matter, held "before we even knew what happened to the ambassador," was appropriate. (At that presser, Romney accused the president of sympathizing with those who attacked the consulate.)

"[I]t's never too early to speak out for our values," Ryan said, after falsely accusing the administration of putting out a statement "from Cairo" that he said it later "repudiated." (Actually, the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement denouncing an inflamatory, anti-Muslim video produced by an American an posted on YouTube, apparently in a failed attempt the calm the situation there, where news of the video was about to set off anti-American protests.) He went on to accuse the administration of making egregious defense cuts.

Then Biden landed his first blow. “With all due respect, that’s a lot of malarkey...” Biden said. “The congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for, number one. So much for the embassy security piece.”

Later, Biden referred to Ryan's comments as "a bunch of stuff" -- falling just short of calling them a steaming pile.

A lie and a surprise

During a discussion of the Romney/Ryan Medicare plan, Ryan repeated the lie that the $716 billion in reduced future Medicare spending were actually cuts to the program. Perhaps that was to be expected. More surprising was Ryan’s riff on abortion.

The question arose when Raddatz asked each man to describe how his Catholic faith informed his politics, particularly on abortion. After describing the first time he saw an ultrasound of his wife’s uterus when she was pregnant with their first child, Ryan volunteered: “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.”

The Romney/Ryan position is for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Ryan’s answer suggests that the constitutional rights of Americans should be decided in state legislatures and Congress; not by the enforcement of the Constitution through the courts.

And if you look at the numbers of legislative restrictions on abortion introduced just last year in the states, you know where that would get you.

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