Budget wonk Paul Ryan scored several decisive blows over formidable debater Joe Biden in this evening???s debate face-off, hitting the administration on its missteps and misinformation following the Benghazi murders and its failure to improve job growth. But Biden played to the crowd throughout the night, sidestepping questions while snickering and expressing exasperation with his opponent on every topic.
The Republican ticket was riding a polling bump after presidential challenger Mitt Romney scored the most decisive debate win in history over President Barack Obama last week, but Ryan had a tall task: to maintain momentum while highlighting his expertise in fiscal policy and proving competence in foreign affairs and defense, a historical weak area for the ticket.
Moderator Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, began the debate with a discussion of Libya, asking hard-hitting questions about why the administration failed to provide adequate security for the Benghazi consulate and why the White House spread wrong information about the nature of the attacks.
Ryan held President Barack Obama???s feet to the fire for addressing the United Nations two weeks after the attack and citing a video, rather than terror, as the source of the violence.
???This is getting more troubling by the day,??? he said.
But he was unable to keep Biden on topic and to press him further on the administration???s failures in the aftermath of Benghazi. Both candidates avoided a direct answer to a question about the effectiveness of a military strike on Iran, tousling instead on sanctions, which both sides support, and the progress the nation has made on developing nuclear weapons over the last four years.
???When Obama was elected they had enough fissile material to make one nuclear bomb. Now they have enough for five,??? Ryan said.
Though Ryan touched on other foreign policy administration flops, including failure to adequately support Syrian opposition to the Assad regime and flip-flopping on support of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Ultimately, on foreign policy Biden was able to keep Ryan at arm???s length by contesting everything Ryan said, and generously interjecting phrases like ???malarkey??? and ???this is stuff??? to discredit him.
Ryan maintained an edge in the domestic policy portion of the debate by pressing Biden on the administration???s dismal record on jobs in the economy.
While Biden tried to pin the debate on Republican support of tax cuts for the wealthy, Ryan called his bluff.
???There aren???t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending. That???s why we???re saying we need fundamental tax reform,??? he said.
Ryan also pointed to his own hometown, Janesville, Wis., noting that unemployment there has risen from 8.5 to 10 percent during the Obama presidency. While Biden blamed the administration???s failure to turn the economy around on the ???free fall??? they inherited from the previous administration, Ryan challenged that Obama came in with a Democratic majority in both houses in Congress and was unable regardless to achieve meaningful economic change.
A moving moment for both candidates came near the end of the night, when Raddatz pressed them on their political stance on abortion.
Ryan said he was pro-life not only because of his Catholic faith, but because ???reason and science??? showing that life begins at conception, recalling a story about seeing his oldest daughter on a sonogram, no bigger than a bean.
???I don???t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,??? he said.
Biden said in spite of believing personally that life begins at conception as a practicing Catholic, he did not believe he had the right to ???tell people what to do??? in political life.
Though it wasn???t the kind of landslide Romney carried off last Wednesday, Ryan may have taken an edge in the domestic policy portion of the debate by remaining steady, pressing Biden on his own record, and refusing to get sidetracked by Biden???s scoffing.
Though winners and losers are a tough call, the biggest whopper of the night seems clearly to belong to Biden, who accused Ryan of voting in the House to ???put two wars on a credit card. I voted against them, I said we can???t afford that,??? he said.
In fact, according to Biden???s record, he voted for both wars multiple times.
When the debate made its pivot to health care reform and Medicare, the Biden and Ryan continued to trade elbows under the board.
???Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt, these are indisputable facts,??? said Ryan as he tried to stake out the position that the current situation is bad and getting worse, so that an adult conversation about reform programs was necessary and responsible.
Biden would have none of that.
???Their ideas are old, and their ideas are bad, and they eliminate the guarantee of Medicare,??? he said.
???Look folks, use your common sense, who do you trust on this???? Biden asked.
Republicans have never supported Medicare, he said.
The Wisconsin congressman made a valiant effort. He scored health care points at the end of the debate by comparing promises made by candidate Obama with today???s reality, such as the promise to lower health insurance premiums that have gone up and not to raise taxes on the middle class when half the tax increases in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court said was a tax law, would hit the middle class.
–Neil W. McCabe