The most effective punches by Republican VP challenger, Congressman Paul Ryan, came in the first few minutes of Thursday night’s debate, over the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. He was correct on the facts – this was a failure of the American intelligence apparatus, and the Administration was concealing the truth about the attack on our Benghazi consulate (as our own Lori Lowenthal Marcus pointed out last night). Biden was thrown off by Ryan’s aggressive opener, and mumbled something about the White House following whatever information Intelligence was passing over. That was, clearly, a questionable fact.
But, alas, Ryan was unable to hone his quick advantage into a devastating punch that could, possibly, leave his opponent staggering for the remaining 80 minutes or so. Remember, Joe Biden is the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he is Mister Foreign Affairs, particularly about the Middle East. To score on him decisively in his area of expertise would have been a real body blow.
Except that, unlike his colleague, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who held no punches in accusing the Obama White House of outright lying when they described an Al Qaeda well synchronized military attack on the consulate as a rowdy demonstration against an offensive You Tube clip. Ryan retreated, leaving the Vice President room to recover and come out of that opening clash a bit scathed but far from punched out.
With a seasoned politician like Joe Biden you don’t get two chances of this magnitude in the same debate. Joe dusted himself off, collected his thoughts and quickly went on the offensive on the economy. He let the Romney camp have it on the 47% of freeloaders (Romney) and the 30% takers (Ryan), on letting Detroit go to the dogs, on turning Medicare and Social Security into a vouchers system.
He had one admittedly devastating line which he did not deliver as well as he could have, asking the viewers at home what would have happened had President Bush II been able to pass his law on letting workers apply their Social Security savings to stocks just before Wall Street took a dive.
His turning to the folks at home with a grandfatherly warning was truly great, no matter how many times he did it. He warned folks about losing their Medicare benefits under a Romeny-Ryan presidency, about the fate of abortions, about the makeup of the Supreme Court. It was clearly just a device, but it was a device Joe owned the whole night.
His toothy smiles bordering on laughter in response to Ryan’s allegations, and the eye rolling – I could do without. I’m sure Joe annoyed the viewers as much as he did me. Only about 45 minutes into the thing did it occur to him that he could express disagreement without all the fake merriment, and from that point on he concealed the dental work better.
Ryan was better at registering his frustration, and clear, even sharp, occasionally even harsh in making his own points. Both candidates lost me when they started throwing the numbers around, without context, often saying billions when they meant millions or trillions – exhibiting how irrelevant those facts and figures really were to anyone not participating in a quiet budget meeting with several laptops humming around the conference table. Outside that context, the verbose accumulation of facts and figures plucked from nowhere is meaningless, if not alienating.
I was hoping that Ryan, who is known as a nice guy, would out-Biden Biden. He didn’t. Instead he offered a deadly sincere approach, smiled very little, and didn’t manage to look convincingly comfortable in his own skin throughout the exchange. Biden was better at feeling like he could go on with that conversation for as long as it took, he was fine.
Ryan was by far more articulate than Biden, who at times couldn’t complete his sentences and used abbreviated references familiar to the political class which had to be lost on many viewers. Whatever plan the Romney-Ryan team has for bringing on economic change, Ryan came across as if he is thoroughly familiar with it and eager to get started. Biden was offering nothing but more of the same, having argued that “the same” has been doing the job.