Last night's debate in Danville, Kentucky between Vice President Joe Biden and his opponent, Republican nominee and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan was a sharp contrast from the Presidential debate that occurred a week ago in Denver, Colorado. The first thing that comes to mind was how much better the moderator, Martha Raddatz, a veteran war and foreign correspondent, handled the proceedings compared with Jim Lehrer, who moderated the first debate.
Not surprisingly, given Raddatz expertise, the debate was loaded with discussions around foreign policy. She started the night with a question about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Lybia. In my view this was Vice President Biden's weakest performance period during the debate as his responses came off as somewhat evasive. The response by Mr. Ryan was strong and forceful and full of mistakes, the most glaring one that he claimed the "embassy" in Lybia wasn't well secured which resulted in Ambassador Stevens and 3 other foreign service workers' deaths. The problem was, Mr. Stevens wasn't killed at the Embassy, which is in Tripoli. He was killed at a consulate in Benghazi, which is essentially a house and not a fortified building. It is astounding to me that someone who is essentially running as the understudy for the Presidency wouldn't know the difference. However, that aside, Mr. Ryan's discussion about Lybia segued into a dissertation about how Obama's Foreign Policy is unraveling in front of our eyes. I think it was his strongest segment of the night.
Further discussions of foreign policy issues, whether in Iran, Afghanistan or Syria showed poorly for Mr. Ryan. He looked like he had studied on the subject, but as one pundit put it, "He studied to pass the test" versus have a deep understanding of this region and how things work there. The Vice President's knowledge and experience in foreign policy came through clearly in this segment of the discussion and at the end of the day, Mr. Ryan was left to say essentially, that "in general we agree with the timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan that the Administration has; we agree with with the sanctions on Iran; we agree that we don't want to put boots on the ground in Syria, we just don't like the way the Administration is doing it." This was weak tea in my view and shows that the Romney/Ryan team have a deficiency in understanding foreign policy and national security issues and it is clearly an area that the President and Vice President have an advantage.
In matters more familiar and comfortable to the Republican challenger, Mr. Ryan went after the administration and Joe Biden on the economy. Mr. Ryan started by comparing the home towns of Mr. Biden and himself. Joe grew up the blue collar town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Mr. Ryan in the town of Janesville, Wisconsin. Mr. Ryan came hard at the Vice President asking if he knew what the unemployment rate in Scranton was, then proceeded to answer the question himself. Then he indicated that the unemployment rate was higher in Scranton than when the President took office. It was a good point, and left alone might have been one of the best of the night for the Congressman. But he didn't leave it alone, he attempted to tie it to a larger statement of "We're going the wrong way". He opened the door for the Vice President to say that the Congressman was incorrect and that unemployment is indeed going down, which is the right way. It was a small reply by Mr. Biden, but it effectively neutered the point Mr. Ryan was attempting to make.
Mr. Ryan attempted to put his wonk hat on in continued discussions on the economy by reciting numbers about his budget plans which he said he had "passed twice". Also an incorrect statement. The truth of the matter is the budget passed in the House, but it did not in the Senate. Anyway, the Vice President was having none of that and went after specific spending cuts over the course of the debate whether it was in cutting security funding for our embassies or in cutting Medicare. When Raddatz moved the discussion in to Medicare, Ryan attempted to sell his notion of "protecting it for current seniors", while giving younger people a choice through the market, Biden pounced on this and effectively derided the policy that Ryan changed from his original proposal which would have added an estimated cost of $6400 for seniors (Ryan later modified this plan) and then indicted the entire Republican history of fighting against Medicare. He looked into the camera after passionately claiming that the Democrats were always on the right side of Medicare and the Republicans had been looking to eviscerate it from the get-go. He simply said: "Who do you trust?" To me this was one of the most effective moments of the debate and firmly characterized where both parties stood on the issue. On the matter of privatization of Social Security, Mr. Ryan once again supported providing younger people a choice as a response to Biden's challenge that Ryan had supported former President George W. Bush's privatization efforts. Mr Biden said that had that gone through where would these people be now after the crash? He once again portrayed Ryan's position on this as reckless and untrustworthy.
The most salient point of the night in my view will probably not be remembered given all the talk about Mr. Biden's rude interruptions, laughs and facial expressions. Certainly Joe Biden was the aggressor, and did indeed disrupt Mr. Ryan on several occasions calling him out on several times with responses like "That is a bunch of Malarkey", which is Irish code for "BS". There was plenty of that going on. But, the most salient point to me was in response to Raddatz' question on abortion. And pay attention to this. When asked about the policy on abortion, Ryan said that the Romney/Ryan position was no abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and in case the mother's life is threatened. Pressed on the topic, Mr. Ryan said he didn't believe "non-elected judges" should be the deciding factor in this issue. There you go folks. This is a clear code that he wants Roe v. Wade overturned and doesn't think the Supreme Court should be a factor here, of course unless he's got a room full of Scalia's weighing in on the matter. I hope the women in the country watching the debate were paying attention to this because it was a significant point as to each party's belief and positions on the topic. Biden said quite effectively that he believed in his cChurch's teachings but would not force his beliefs on others and felt that this was an issue between women and their doctors. Compare and contrast, you will see a clear picture.
Mr. Biden brought up the statement by both Romney and Ryan that 47% or 30% of the country were effectively moochers and had no personal responsibility. The Vice President took Romney apart by detailing out who was in that 47%, elderly people on social security, combat soldiers, etc., and Ryan's response was weak, putting it off as a misstatement, then attempting to zing the Vice President said "“I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out the right way,” Mr. Biden grinned and said, "But I say what I mean", again effectively putting contrast between gaffe and belief.
Mr. Biden went populist on steroids in this debate demanding that the "other side take some personal responsibility themselves and show a plan on how they intend to solve the problems". He challenged Ryan on specifics consistently refuting and countering statements made. He cut in on Ryan several times with denials or counters that clearly irritated Ryan to the point that he had to address the Vice President about the interruptions. Mr. Biden was at times rude and aggressive, which put Ryan off his seemingly well rehearsed positions. But, the Vice President did what he needed to do in this debate. He defended the President, he took the Romney / Ryan ticket to task and he made a clear appeal to the middle class about who was on there side.
Mr. Ryan did his job as well. He came off fairly polished, and except for getting lost in the foreign policy details around Afghanistan and Syria, he did a credible job, with one exception. And honestly, I don't know necessarily how you defend this. When he was talking about how the Administration had failed the country with a stimulus that didn't work, Mr. Biden gave him a roundhouse that I'm sure the Congressman would rather not have seen last night. Mr. Biden quickly, and with a smile a mile-wide, pointed out that the Congressman himself had requested stimulus funding for his district because it "would help create jobs". This is a central problem in the Republican team right now. They seem to say one thing one day and another on another day. Biden effectively has made this discussion a matter of trust. Who do you trust? On Medicare, who do you trust? On Foreign Affairs, who do you trust?
Joe won the debate with significant and pointed defenses of the President's policies and made the Romney/Ryan ticket look like an out of touch, catering to the wealthy and untrustworthy party who doesn't care about the middle class.
Now we move on to Long Island for the next debate which is on Tuesday, October 16th between the President and Governor Romney. The format will be a town-hall format and will be moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. Candy will have to go a long way to equal Ms. Raddatz fine job last night.
Tell me what you think.