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Aggressive Biden, Cool Ryan Clash in Debate

Aggressive Biden, Cool Ryan Clash in Debate

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 12, 2012


DANVILLE, Ky. -- Here in a state accustomed to horse races, the vice presidential debate Thursday night proved to be a high-stakes feature. Both Joe Biden and the man who wants his job, Paul Ryan, jostled for position in ways they had exhaustively trained to do: Biden, following the president’s dull performance last week, fought hard to rejuvenate the Democratic ticket while his younger challenger -- in his first national debate -- tried to calmly hold his own, parrying Biden’s attacks on everything from tax policy to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The vice president’s task, though, was arguably greater, as he had to correct a deficit left by his boss and assure worried Democrats who have watched swing state polls tighten this week. If judged by that measure, Biden had a strong performance, though his body language (which included frequent grins and disbelieving laughter) and some of his facts might have been suspect.

The debate at Centre College focused heavily on foreign policy, a strong suit for Biden, who once chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a perceived weakness for Ryan, the House Budget chairman. But the murky details that emerged from a congressional hearing this week on how the administration handled the attack on the consulate in Libya provided an opportunity for Ryan to score points.

The moderator, ABC foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, opened the forum by citing the Benghazi attack last month that killed the U.S. ambassador there and three other Americans. Biden pledged that “whatever mistakes were made will not be made again.” Ryan chastised the White House for not immediately characterizing the violence as an act of terrorism, instead of a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video, as was first reported by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Biden called Ryan’s assertion “a bunch of malarkey” and said that as the intelligence community learned more about what transpired, administration officials “changed their assessment.”

Ryan argued that the Benghazi attack was indicative of a larger U.S. policy weakness. “What we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more . . . chaotic and us less safe,” he said. Biden claimed Ryan’s budget cut $300 million from embassy security, and insisted that the administration did not know U.S. diplomats in Libya had sought additional security, though the opposite was expressed during Wednesday’s congressional hearing on the matter. Ryan called the White House explanation of the unfolding details about the attack “more troubling by the day.”

Biden underscored what he perceives as the president’s foreign policy successes, citing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the setting of a deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He said these steps fulfilled campaign promises and he accused Romney of opposing the Afghanistan timeline. Ryan argued that his ticket supports a 2014 withdrawal but asserted that publicizing such a timeline endangers national security.

When the subject turned to Iran and its efforts to produce nuclear weapons, Ryan was aggressive in his criticism. He accused the administration of watering down sanctions and not taking the threat seriously, noting that Obama appeared on the daytime talk show “The View” instead of meeting with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden responded: “Bibi, he’s been my friend for 39 years. The president has met with Bibi a dozen times.” The vice president said he and Obama spoke by phone with Netanyahu before the United Nations meeting late last month, where the prime minister illustrated the nuclear threat with a drawn image of a bomb.

Raddatz then turned to what she called another national security issue: the economy. Biden was able to accomplish what Obama did not do on this issue: In short order he attacked Romney for his “47 percent” comments, for his opposition to the auto bailout, and for saying that solving the foreclosure crisis must involve letting it “hit bottom.”

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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