WASHINGTON (MCT) — The 90-minute showdown between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan may be most remembered for Biden’s grinning, laughing and seemingly mocking of his younger opponent. But the more lasting impact was reinforcing the fact that election is an unusually telling referendum on how people want America governed — and a call to arms for the bases of both parties.
Biden forcefully recited the Democratic mantra in ways that Democrats needed to hear after President Barack Obama let them down with an underwhelming performance in his first debate against Republican Mitt Romney. Biden spoke passionately about a government with extensive safety nets and a measured diplomatic approach to foreign policy.
Ryan presented the Republican line, talking tough on foreign policy and turning to the private sector to repair the economy.
History says vice presidential debates rarely matter, since people vote for president, not the running mate.
Still, in a skin-tight race where almost anything can make a difference, it’s likely the Biden-Ryan debate in Danville, Kentucky, will further incite the partisans, giving them the kind of fresh talking points and motivation so crucial in the closing weeks. On that score, Biden and Ryan did what they had to do.
Obama, dogged since the first debate by his lackluster performance, needed the kinetic Biden to re-energize the suddenly sullen Democratic base.
Biden succeeded, though he probably will be lampooned for his frequent smirking and tut-tutting as Ryan spoke. Biden, 69, a 40-year Washington veteran, seemed irked that the 42-year-old congressman would dare to occupy the same stage.
He dismissed Ryan points as “malarkey,” “a bunch of stuff,” “bluster,” and more. Democrats will probably find that refreshing.
They’ll also like his plain talk. Biden, an easy conversationalist who for years rode the train home to Delaware from Washington each night to be with his family, spoke in heartfelt terms about his background.
He cited the Romney remark that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as “victims” dependent on government help. Biden recalled “the people I grew up with, my neighbors, they pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security.”
Romney had his own mission Thursday. The former Massachusetts governor, whose patrician image got a makeover in the first debate, needed Ryan to continue marketing the brand of sensitive conservatism Republicans are selling.
Ryan probably pleased Republicans. He stoically stuck to his talking points, refusing to be goaded by Biden’s prodding.
Ryan, who has no foreign policy experience, offered the Romney line on Iran, for instance.
“This administration has no credibility on this issue,” Ryan said. “It’s because this administration watered down sanctions, delayed sanctions, tried to stop us from putting the tough sanctions in place.”
Both men stayed in character. Biden has been at the forefront of nearly every major congressional battle of the last four decades, leading the Democratic charge on Supreme Court nominees, foreign policy, and more. His 2008 White House bid flopped, but he routinely drew loud, appreciative crowds of activists.
Ryan has the same standing with Republicans. Chairing the House Budget Committee is akin to ascending a political throne in Republican circles — it was an important stepping stone for Ohio Gov. John Kasich — and Ryan has made the most of it.
His budget blueprints, with their calls for changing how seniors get health care and its spending cuts, may make Democrats recoil, but they became a virtual anthem for Republicans. Just look, they would say — this guy put his views in writing and political career on the line.
Running mates occasionally make a difference in close races, most notably Lyndon Johnson’s ability to deliver Texas and its crucial electoral votes to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Ryan could swing Wisconsin, where a Quinnipiac poll taken Oct. 4-9 showed Obama up 3 in a state once thought to be safely Democratic.
More significantly, each candidate has cemented his standing as a partisan crowd-pleaser, able to stir the faithful the way the cooler Romney and Obama often cannot.
For 90 minutes, they went back and forth, two men with sharply contrasting views of government’s role in American life. They gently, passionately offered different takes on abortion. They slugged it out over taxes, Medicare, defense and Mideast policy. Nothing was resolved, except that each candidate’s supporters had new talking points — something like this exchange:
“Joe and I are from similar towns. He’s from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I’m from Janesville, Wisconsin. You know what the unemployment rate in Scranton is today?” Ryan asked.
“I sure do,” Biden said. Ryan noted it was 10 percent. “You know what it was the day you guys came in — 8.5 percent,” Ryan said calmly “… that’s how it’s going all around America.”
Biden looked disgusted. “You don’t read the statistics. That’s not how it’s going down.”