Big theatrics, little difference: Biden and Ryan take hawkish line in VP debate

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) debates Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R) during the U.S. vice presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky October 11, 2012 (Reuters / Rick Wilking)
The 2012 vice presidential debates were more dramatic than the presidential debates the week previous. Arguments over foreign policy, however, seemed to split hairs over just how far to go before military intervention.

Paul Ryan and Joe Biden engaged in a passionate back-and-forth over issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear program and the Middle East, to the economy, job growth, taxes, Social Security and Medicare. The debate was a sharp change in tactics for Democrats, with Biden going on the offense early and often. The Vice President implied that the Wisconsin representative was making misleading statements to the American public, at one point pleading to the audience, “I wish he would just tell the – be a little more candid,” and repeatedly saying that Ryan’s comments were “a bunch of malarkey.”


Fired up on foreign policy

The two set a spirited tone early on, butting heads on American foreign policy, Iran and the Libya consulate attack. Ryan repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for a supposedly weak foreign policy, and on Iran. When the pair were asked to elaborate on their positions on Iran, the debate focused mostly on how hard to push sanctions and other forms of pressure, with both confidently discussing military alternatives.

Ryan stated that Obama’s foreign policy was “unraveling,” and that he had not taken a direct enough stance against Iran’s nuclear program. Biden, apparently incredulous, retorted, “What more can the President do? [He has gone to] Stand before the United Nations, tell the whole world, directly communicate to the Ayatollah ‘we will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon, period,’ unless [Ryan is] talking about going to war.”

Ryan then claimed to have an Ayatollah’s-eye view of the situation, suggesting that if Obama had made time for a dinner date with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while both leaders were in New York recently, the Iranian supreme leader might have had a change of heart about the country’s nuclear program.

“They’re not changing their mind,” Ryan said. “That’s what we have to do is change their mind so that they stop pursuing nuclear weapons.”

“But how will you do it so quickly?” debate moderator Martha Raddatz interjected, alluding to how years of UN sanctions have done little to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Look, you both saw Benjamin Netanyahu hold up that picture of a bomb with a red line, and talking about the red line being in spring. If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, can you solve this in two months?”

Ryan wavered, responding, “Well, we can debate the timeline, whether it’s that short a time or longer, I agree that it’s probably longer.” Neither candidate gave a concrete response to questions about the long-running tensions between the US and Iran.

The two candidates also jostled over the issue of Syria. “We are working hand and glove…with all the people in the region,” so that “there will be a legitimate government that follows on, not an Al-Qaeda sponsored government that follows on,” Biden said. “All this loose talk from Governor Romney and my friend the congressman about how we could do so much more in there, what more would they do other than put American boots on the ground? The last thing America needs is to get in another ground war in the Middle East.”

Biden made no mention of Washington’s refusal to negotiate this issue with Iran, Syria’s neighbor and a geopolitical ally of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Ryan’s response to the Syrian issue was somewhat cryptic. “No one is proposing to send American troops to Syria,” he said, before dodging the question: “Now let me say it this way. How would we do things differently? We wouldn’t refer to Bashar Assad as a reformer when he’s killing his own civilians with his Russian provided weapons. We wouldn’t be outsourcing our foreign policy to the United Nations, giving Vladimir Putin veto power over our efforts to try and deal with this issue…”

Ryan neglected to mention that President Obama also wields a veto on the United Nations Security Council, and that no country can legally cut off America’s non-military aid to the Syrian opposition.

Obama praised Assad as a reformer a year before the uprising began, in the hopes that Syria serve as a mediator for peace talks between Israel and other Arab nations. Those hopes quickly evaporated 19 months ago as violence broke out.


Damage control duty

Both candidates seized the opportunity to engage in damage control for their respective partners, with Romney trying to clear the air over Romney’s ‘47 percent’ comments and Biden trying to provide the fire missing from Obama’s lackluster performance last week.

Early on, Ryan took the Obama administration to task over the deficit, spending and job growth. He said that while Obama had inherited big economic problems in the form of a major recession, the country was presently going in the wrong direction, and that stimulus spending was hurting the economy rather than helping it.

Ryan claimed unemployment was growing despite Democratic efforts to reduce it, to which Biden replied “you don’t read the statistics, it’s going down,” referring to a new jobs report released last week which saw US unemployment slide down to 7.8 percent. When asked, neither candidate was able to present a clear vision of how to get US unemployment under 6 percent. Biden remarked that the stimulus has been good for the economy, that it had saved jobs, and that “Moody’s and others said it was just what we needed.”

Biden also launched the long-awaited attack on Romney’s incendiary ‘47 percent’ remarks about the nearly half of Americans who do not pay payroll taxes. Romney originally stood by the remarks, but recently disavowed them.

“Romney says that 47 percent of Americans are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend [Ryan] recently said at speech in Washington that 30 percent of the American people are takers. These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors; they pay more effective tax than governor Romney pays on his federal income tax. They are elderly people who are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are ‘not paying any taxes.’”

Ryan quickly responded with the campaign line that “Governor Romney cares about 100 per cent of Americans,” adding “with respect to that quote, I think the Vice President knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” referring to Biden’s famous reputation for gaffes. A grinning Biden replied, “The idea, if you heard that little soliloquy on 47 percent, if you think he misspoke, then I have a bridge to sell you.”

During one heated exchange over Social Security and Medicare, Biden and Ryan interrupted each other loudly and often. As Ryan claimed his plan for Social Security and Medicare has bi-partisan support, Biden interrupted, rejecting each individual Ryan claim as untrue. The back-and-forth prompted a testy Ryan to remark, “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.” Biden returned the favor immediately, grinning, “Well, don’t take the whole four minutes then.”

Polls following the debate were varied, with CBS reporting that Biden had won the debate among undecided voters by a margin of 50 percent to 31 percent; CNN said that said Ryan won the debate 48 to 44 percent. The split numbers are certainly an improvement for the Democrats – nearly every poll showed Romney to be the winner of the October 3 presidential debate.