In vice presidential debate, Ryan played it cool, Biden played rough
It was as much a do-over as a debate.
Vice President Joe Biden ostensibly took the stage on Thursday night to square off against the man who seeks to replace him, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
But almost from the moment the debate began in Danville, Ky., it was clear that Biden's real mission was to do what President Obama failed to do in his lackluster performance against Republican nominee Mitt Romney last week.
And in doing so, Biden was seeking to repair the damage from that stumble on Obama's part, which has moved poll numbers across the map in the direction of the GOP ticket.
On issue after issue, Biden defended what the Obama administration has done and painted the Republican ticket as out of step with the concerns of average Americans.
“A bunch of malarkey,” said Biden when Ryan warned that cutting defense spending would make the country weak.
“I've never met two guys who're more down on America across the board,” added the vice president when the subject turned to the economy.
Ryan, on the other hand, chose to play it cautiously, seeking to avoid mistakes, to display the mastery of fiscal policy that he has gained as chairman of the House Budget Committee and to reassure swing voters that the policies of a Romney presidency would not decimate social programs.
When he was talking, Biden dominated the debate and an opponent 27 years his junior.
And though Biden is a man with a reputation for making gaffes, his worst moments came when he wasn't talking but remained under the unblinking gaze of the camera.
As Ryan spoke, the split screen picked up Biden's grins and chortles, suggesting a dismissiveness and scorn for the views of an opponent whom he repeatedly called “my friend,” and he appeared to make no attempt to suppress them.
Although Biden's frequent interruptions may have revived the spirits of the Democratic faithful, they may have been too much for less partisan viewers.
“Mr. Vice President, I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don't keep interrupting each other,” Ryan said at one point.
Biden made many of the arguments that Obama, for whatever reason, failed to make in his first debate against Romney.
For instance, Biden raised Romney's controversial comment, caught on videotape, in which the Republican presidential nominee suggested that the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes are government-dependent freeloaders who consider themselves victims.
“These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors,” Biden said. “They pay more effective tax ⅛through payroll and other taxes⅜ than Gov. Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who, in fact, are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now.”
Ryan defended Romney, drawing laughs from the audience when he noted: “The vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way.”
Biden retorted: “But I always say what I mean. And so does Romney.”
One of Ryan's missions was to show a softer side of Romney, a son of privilege whom many view as out of touch with average Americans.
Ryan told a story of how Romney had come to the aid of a family whose children were hurt in an auto accident.
“This is a man who gave 30 percent of his income to charity, more than the two of us combined,” Ryan said. “Mitt Romney's a good man. He cares about 100 percent of Americans in this country.”
Karen Tumulty is a writer forThe Washington Post.