Unlike the first presidential debate last week, where Mitt Romney walked away the clear winner, Thursday night’s one and only conversation between the two vice-presidential candidates produced three victors: Joe Biden, Paul Ryan and Martha Raddatz. And while both candidates did well, the bottom line is that Joe Biden effectively stopped the free-fall of the Obama campaign.
Joe Biden brought his “A” game. After the dismal performance of President Barack Obama last week, the stakes were high for the vice president. He needed to attack the Romney/Ryan ticket on the lack of specifics and defend the record of the Obama administration. He did both masterfully.
Biden wasted no time asking Ryan to supply some specific ways that he and Romney plan to pay for their 20% across-the-board tax cut. Biden is in some ways far more qualified to talk about this issue than Obama, due to his long tenure in Congress. Ryan and his GOP colleagues like to point to the Reagan tax cuts as evidence of cuts leading to growth, and therefore paying for themselves. Biden was quick to point out, however, that Reagan was very specific about the loopholes he wanted to close. Since Biden was actually serving in the Senate when those big tax negotiations took place, his claim that Romney and Ryan are not actually following the Reagan model holds considerable credibility.
The vice president had clearly done his homework. When Ryan tried to attack him on the “fraudulent” stimulus, Biden forcefully rebutted that claim and highlighted its efficacy. In response to Ryan’s claim that the economy was not growing faster, Biden underscored the role of the obstinate GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
Perhaps the most effective line of the night, however, was when Biden chided Ryan for acting as though the Great Recession fell out of the sky. He drew a clear line between the policies of the Bush administration — voted for by Ryan — and the recession.
The Democratic base was sorely disappointed in the president last week, and that enthusiasm plunge has shown up in the polls. Joe Biden did his boss and his supporters an enormous favor last night by delivering a strong defense of their record and a scathing critique of the Romney/Ryan agenda. He was enthused, cheerful and prepared. Obama supporters around the country must be heaving a big sigh of relief.
Paul Ryan made a strong case for himself. In his first debate of national significance, Paul Ryan more than held his own. He presented himself and his agenda confidently, and he relentlessly attacked the Obama administration on both the economy and foreign policy.
Although the fact-checkers will no doubt dissect every statement of the night, Ryan did not make any egregious errors or missteps, at least as far as I could tell. He did continue to insist that the math of his tax plan adds up, without any evidence or specifics. But these omissions are old news at this point.
The most important qualification of any vice president is, of course, to step in in the event that the sitting president dies or is unable to serve. Ryan is young and has little experience in foreign policy. At tonight’s debate, though, he showed a remarkable level of fluency and competency in discussing foreign affairs.
Martha Raddatz set a new high standard for debate moderators. As we pointed out last week, Jim Lehrer was a horribly ineffective moderator for the first presidential debate. He was passive and had few good and specific questions. Raddatz was as good as Lehrer was bad. She kept the candidates on subject, moved the conversation along and did not allow herself to be steamrolled. Her questions were so specific they almost could have been answered with a “yes” or “no.” (Of course, no politician ever grants us the favor of such lucid brevity.) She successfully used the 90 minutes to cover everything from Libya to Iran to the economy to abortion.
So with the vice-presidential debate in the books, all eyes turn to Tuesday’s town-hall-style debate between Obama and Romney. One thing is certain — these contests are living up to their hype.