Democrats, you may exhale. But don't you dare rejoice.
Vice President Joe Biden took some of the heat off his boss in the critical home stretch of the 2012 election, delivering a spirited debate performance that aimed to compensate for President Obama’s lifeless appearance on another stage one week ago.
While Biden frequently got the better of his younger rival, Paul Ryan made a strong pitch for the business expertise Romney would bring to the White House at a time of economic peril. The likely result: a race that is as tight and unpredictable as ever.
Few voters will have Ryan or Biden in mind when they cast their ballots, but their first and only matchup in Danville, Ky., was an opportunity for them to alter perceptions of the men leading the tickets. Biden built a populist case against the Republican Party’s plan to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, arguing that those breaks are holding the middle class “hostage.” Ryan shot back that there weren’t enough rich people in the country to pay for the Democrats’ overspending.
National polls and surveys in several battleground states have been tightening since Romney’s strong debate appearance last week. The race looks like a tie, with the president holding a slight edge. Romney’s image has been improving the most with blue-collar women – a group Biden tried to reach by criticizing the Republican Party’s tax plan and defending abortion rights.
Both he and Ryan made a point several times of looking away from the moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and directly facing the television camera in an attention-grabbing effort to connect with the small sliver of the electorate that is still on the fence.
Both vice presidential candidates were far less appealing while listening to each other.
Ryan, who looks younger than his 42 years, wore an unbecoming smirk through much of the debate. And the 69-year-old Biden’s constant grinning and chuckling to express disbelief at his opponent’s assertions was unsettling, especially when it came in response to grim topics such as the violence in the Middle East and the war in Afghanistan. Was he overcompensating for Obama’s dour demeanor in the first presidential debate last week? Or just being Joe?
Indignation suited Biden much better than bemusement.
The vice president, who relishes talking about his hardscrabble childhood in Scranton, Pa., did a star turn as Obama’s ambassador to working-class America. He twice called Ryan’s criticisms “malarkey.” And referring to Romney’s remarks at a closed-door fundraiser that described 47 percent of the country as government freeloaders, Biden said, “These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors.... They are elderly people who, in fact, are living off Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, not paying any taxes.”
He added: “Instead of signing pledges to [antitax crusader] 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.”
The sound heard next was from Democrats doing the living room cheers they never got to do during the presidential debate last week.
Biden was on shakier ground when asked to explain the deaths of four Americans at the Libyan embassy last month and the initial failure of the administration to characterize the attacks as terrorism.
Ryan saw his opening. “Look, if we’re hit by terrorists, we’re going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack,” he said. In a more sweeping criticism of the administration, Ryan added, “What we are witnessing as we turn on our television screens these days is the absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.... Problems are growing abroad, but jobs aren't growing here at home.”
It was a lively, 90-minute exchange between two career politicians who clearly relish a good debate, but the elder statesman frequently prevailed. When Ryan argued that the administration was downplaying the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Biden retorted that Iran faced “crippling sanctions” and suggested a Romney administration would be panting to go to war. When Ryan spoke movingly about Romney’s generosity to his fellow churchgoers, Biden said he didn’t doubt his personal commitments, but what about his commitment to the struggling automobile industry?
“Stop talking about how you care about people,” Biden barked. “Show me something. Show me a policy.”
Indeed, Ryan struggled to give details about how a Romney administration would pay for its tax cuts without boosting the deficit. He was caught flat-footed when Biden reminded the Wisconsin congressman that he had submitted two requests for money from the administration’s economic stimulus package he has often derided.
Ryan also gave a muddled explanation of the ticket’s view toward winding down the war in Afghanistan. “We don’t want to lose the gains we’ve gotten,” he said, while acknowledging that he and Romney agree with the administration that troops should be home by 2014.
Then Biden schooled his younger opponent about the reason for the timeline: so that Afghanistan would take responsibility for its own security. “The only way they step up is to say, ‘Fellas, we’re leaving,” he said.
Ryan was more confident when he accused the administration of siphoning $716 billion from Medicare to pay for its health care law and failing to put forth a long-term plan to reform entitlement programs. The chairman of the House Budget Committee is revered by the conservative establishment and demonized by Democrats for his plan to overhaul the government’s safety nets for the poor and elderly.
Look for that debate over the size and scope of government to dominate the race in its final weeks.