A boisterous Joe Biden led a riproaring Democratic counterattack last night on Republicans, using his vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan to repeatedly criticise – and sometimes openly laugh at – his opponents’ policies on every topic from taxes, the economy and health care to the Middle East and Iran.
The 90-minute encounter in this small Kentucky college town may have been as uninhibited as any in debate history, as Mr Biden challenged Mr Ryan at every turn, something President Obama signally failed to do in his first debate with Mitt Romney last week.
With seconds of the start, the two were odds with the young Republican Congressman charging that events in Iran, Syria and Libya showed “the unravelling of the Obama foreign policy.” Mr Biden instantly hit back. “Not a single thing he [Ryan] says is accurate, I don’t understand what he’s talking about. With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarky.”
That exchange set the tone for subsequent set-tos on economic policy, with Mr Biden zeroing in on the Republican proposals, largely shaped by Mr Ryan, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, to reduce the deficit while at the same time cutting tax rates.
He blamed the Republicans for holding hostage iniatives that would help the middle class in order to preserve tax cuts for the very rich who didn’t need them. “Stop talking about how you care about people,” Mr Biden declaring at one point, “show me how you care. These guys [the Republicans] are so concerned now about the debt they created, I love it.”
Though more low key and restrained in style, Mr Ryan however would not be cowed, scoring points of his own. Republicans later grumbled about Mr Biden’s derision of his opponent, and they might have a point. In 2000, vice-president Al Gore was widely perceived as being insulting and condescending when he audibly sighed at arguments advanced by his opponent George W Bush.
But senior Democrats afterwards were delighted that Mr Biden had at least taken the fight to Republicans, after Mr Obama’s limp performance last week. “These guys have been peddling shell games and lies, and Biden called them out,” Maryland’s governor Martin O’Malley told reporters afterwards.
Probably, few voters will change their minds as a result of the sound and fury in Danville. But Mr Biden may help slow, or even reverse, Mr Romney’s post-debate rise in the polls. Throughout he portrayed himself as veteran statesman against the bright but simplistic novice – “like the college principal debating the class president,” as David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s top strategist, put it.
Whether that is true, the contrast in moods afterwards in the celebrated ‘spin room’ was notable. Republicans were subdued, criticising Mr Biden’s tone as they defended Mr Ryan. Democratic representatives were buoyant – and confident Mr Obama would take a leaf from his vice-president's book in his second match-up with Mr Romney next Tuesday.
The debate saw clashes on health and entitlement policy as well, especially on Mr Ryan’s proposal to part-privatise the Medicare programme for the elderly. “We will not be part of any voucher plan,” Mr Biden retorted, his eye in particular on the large elderly population in Florida, a key swing state where Mr Obama and Mr Romney are neck-and-neck.
In response, Mr Ryan accused his opponent of using “completely misleading” arguments. “That’s what politicians do when they don’t have a record to run on.” Mr Obama, he said, had campaigned on a platform of hope and change, but now had a new strategy of “attack, blame and defame.”
About the only thing they did agree on was the 2014 target date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. But there too, as Mr Ryan warned against imperilling hard won successes, Mr Biden was more emphatic: “We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.”