The vice presidential candidates came to Kentucky for one of the most substantive debates in years — a clear, energetic argument over policy differences that left their bosses’ recent performance in the dust.
Here are some observations from Thursday night’s debate at Centre College in Danville between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Political pundits love memorable debate lines, and they figured these two Irish Catholic candidates would not disappoint. Only minutes into the debate, Biden delivered the first of many colorful rebuttals to Ryan’s sometimes inaccurate characterizations of the Obama administration’s record.
“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said, using an old-fashioned Irish term for nonsense. “This is a bunch of stuff,” he continued, puzzling moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who asked what he meant.
“Well it means it’s simply inaccurate,” Biden explained.
“It’s Irish,” Ryan added.
“We Irish call it malarkey,” Biden continued.
Biden seemed determined not to repeat Obama’s mistake of not aggressively challenging Romney’s characterizations of the nation’s problems, how they came about and how the administration has tried to address them.
When Ryan criticized the more than $800 billion in federal “stimulus” spending the Obama administration used early in its term to try to keep the Great Recession it inherited from becoming a depression, Biden made a spirited defense.
Republicans have claimed “stimulus” spending as a waste of money that created no jobs, although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.
Biden then tried to make Ryan look like a hypocrite by noting that he had twice sought “stimulus” money for Wisconsin companies.
Ryan, who at age 42 is 27 years younger than Biden, was poised and articulate. He calmly held his own for most of the debate.
Ryan was a much more convincing advocate for conservative economic policies than Romney, who in his first debate suddenly morphed from an arch-conservative trying to shore up his base to a moderate trying to win over undecided voters.
Ryan and Biden’s point-counterpoint arguments about Social Security, Medicare, tax policy and approaches to deficit reduction underscored the sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues. It was as good a discussion by party standard-bearers as voters are likely to hear this fall.
Ryan had done his homework and spoke knowledgeably about foreign policy. But while he sharply criticized the Obama administration’s actions regarding Libya, Iran and Syria, he was unable to say specifically what a Romney administration would do differently.
That gave Biden an opening to portray Ryan and Romney’s criticisms as “bluster” and “loose talk”. He implied that their attitudes could be as dangerous as the Bush administration swagger that got America mired in long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The last thing we need now is another war,” Biden said.
No ‘civility’ pledge
For the record, both campaigns declined a request from Centre’s student government leaders to sign a new “civility pledge.” The pledge was a voluntary but popular student initiative last year intended to govern their own conduct.
The pledge says: “I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community.”
“They thought it was a good idea, but I think they were averse to setting a precedent,” said Patrick Cho, Centre’s student government president. “It was disappointing, but I understand why.”
Televised debates are as much about theatrical performance as substance. How a candidate presents himself is often more important than what he has to say. Most voters seem to want confident, empathetic leaders, not policy wonks.
Aggressiveness tends to be seen as a sign of strength, as long as it doesn’t go too far. Passivity is viewed a sign of weakness. But the line is thin and subjective.
Republicans complained after the debate that Biden was rude and condescending toward Ryan. But Democrats said the same thing about Romney’s demeanor toward Obama during their Oct. 3 debate in Denver. What do most undecided voters think? We will find out on election day.