Feisty Biden, wonky Ryan

Updated 11:14 AM EDT, Sat October 13, 2012

Story highlights

The debate wasn't only a clash of ideas; it was a contrast of styles, say contributors

Tim Stanley: Candidates were in different worlds, pugnacious Biden vs. wonkish Ryan

Paul Begala: Calling Romney-Ryan's plans "malarkey" was a home run for Democrats

Julian Zelizer: Both sides will be able to boast about their candidates' performance

(CNN) —  

Vice President Joe Biden met his challenger, Rep. Paul Ryan, Thursday night in Danville, Kentucky, for the vice presidential debate. CNN contributors and analysts offered these assessments of the evening:

Timothy Stanley: Debate was sports bar vs. seminar

This was a strange debate, even an ugly one. The two men looked like they were taking part in separate discussions. Ryan was speaking in the economics seminar at some obscure think tank. Biden was shouting answers in the middle of a loud sports bar.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

The tone was so uneven that the candidates seemed to find each other’s presence a nuisance – Biden laughed his way through Ryan’s answers and Ryan was often visibly irritated. The most surreal moment was when Biden picked a fight with the moderator, Martha Raddatz, about the Afghanistan War. We’ve never seen him this pugnacious.

Overall, it was a draw. Liberals will probably appreciate that Biden did what Obama failed to do last week: He took the debate to the Republicans and called out their “malarkey.” But moderate voters might take offense at his combative tone, which often bordered on rude. By contrast, Ryan’s softer, more wonkish style might strike floating voters as weak. But he could also score among those looking for calm and reason rather than heated rhetoric.

Biden excelled when attacking Ryan on Romney’s flip-flops and failure to commit to specific spending cuts. Ryan excelled when talking about his beloved Medicare and tax plans. Both men displayed thoughtfulness and humanity in the question of abortion, which pitted different traditions of Catholicism against one another.

Ryan said his faith and his public policy were inseparable; Biden refused to compel others to adhere to Catholic doctrine. Again, how the voter reacts to those answers will depend on their prejudices. This debate wasn’t about persuasion. It was about drawing contrasts and playing to the cameras. As a result, it probably wasn’t the game changer that either side was looking for.

Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan.”

Politics: Five things we learned from the VP debate

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

Paul Begala: Biden’s “malarkey” line sums it up

I sometimes think the definition of a Democrat is someone who is afraid to take his own side in a fight.


With that one word, spoken in the opening minutes of the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden signaled he was fighting back. Biden gave the Democrats the debate they needed. He grabbed Paul Ryan by the scruff of his neck and gave him a thorough thrashing.

Biden pounced on Ryan for seeking to cut funding for embassy security, even as he played politics with the terror attack on our consulate in Benghazi. The Malarkey Moment surprised Ryan and energized Biden. Perhaps smelling blood in the water, Biden kept Ryan on his heels for the rest of the evening.

Ryan gulped water as Biden spoke, and Biden smiled (sometimes you could tell it was forced) as Ryan talked. And for all the times they called each other “my friend” and said, “with all due respect,” both candidates had a tone of exasperation at times.

Biden hammered Ryan and Romney for sneering at a giant percentage of Americans. Ryan has called as many as 40% of our fellow citizens “takers.” Yet he more than once spoke of his family’s dependence on Social Security and Medicare. Biden wouldn’t let him get away with it. Finally, it got to Ryan, who snarled, “I know you’re under a lot of duress.” Whoa, sonny-boy, watch the snark. You’re getting your butt kicked, and it shows.

The Obama campaign released a photo of President Obama watching the debate. Good. The president was criticized for being too passive in the first debate. Some may criticize Biden for being too aggressive in this one. So be it. But I loved his performance, and I bet the president did as well.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, is senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, the biggest super PAC favoring President Barack Obama’s re-election. Begala was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Ana Navarro
Ana Navarro
PHOTO: Courtesy Ana Navarro

Ana Navarro: What Obama could learn from Biden

I’m a Republican pundit. I’m supposed to write that Paul Ryan crushed Joe Biden and turned him into dust in tonight’s debate. But I’ve accidentally consumed some truth serum. I saw this as draw. Both Biden and Ryan were prepared, well practiced and brought their A game to the table. The campaign spinners are going to make the case their respective candidates won. In my book, they both scored victories.

Biden won because unlike President Obama in the first debate, Biden did not clearly, unequivocally lose. He stopped the bleeding for his camp. Had Biden followed in Obama’s example and given a lackluster performance, it would have been the fatal blow. Instead, Obama lives to fight another day.

Ryan also came out victorious. He shared the stage with a sitting vice president and one of he most veteran politicians in America and held his own. Ryan went toe to toe with the vice president, even when discussing foreign policy, Biden’s strength. Despite his youth, Ryan looked vice presidential. He debated a man who could easily be his father, but they sat there as equals and on even footing.

Neither of them blinked or ceded an inch. Both of them came armed with facts and figures but also gave us a view into their personal side. This was a good debate for Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, and also for the American people. We got to see the two sides passionately advocate distinct positions. There is no muddled gray area here.

Folks, buckle up! We have a tight race in our hands. The vice presidential debate has made the next presidential debate that much more crucial. If President Obama hopes to reverse the tide, he could stand to learn a few lessons from his vice president. For starters, show up not only in body, but also in soul. Engage your opponent, better yet, look at him. Challenge the statements you think are inaccurate. Don’t leave opportunities on the table. Don’t just stand at the plate; swing at the balls pitched at you.

Joe Biden was being compared to President Obama in the first debate. He vastly outperformed him. Paul Ryan was being compared to Joe Biden, and he stood his ground. The ball now goes back to Romney and Obama’s court. A few months ago, some Democrats were fretting about whether it would be better to replace Biden on the ticket. If President Obama doesn’t come out swinging and deliver an energetic performance in the next debate, Democrats might find themselves wondering if the wrong guy isn’t on the top of the ticket.

Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman’s 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

Feisty VP debate sets up Obama-Romney rematch

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Bob Greene: The words that echoed loudest

It wasn’t a moment that will make the headlines.

But of all the words spoken Thursday evening, they were the ones that may have had people of every political persuasion, all across the country, nodding their heads in quiet agreement.

The words came about eight minutes before the conclusion of the vice-presidential debate. They were spoken not by either of the candidates, but by the moderator, Martha Raddatz.

She prefaced her thoughts by saying she knew that both men had great respect for the people who serve in the military. And then she said:

“I recently spoke to a highly decorated soldier who said that this presidential campaign has left him dismayed. He told me, quote, ‘The ads are so negative, and they are all tearing down each other rather than building up the country.’ What would you say to that American hero about this campaign, and at the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?”

The answers given by Joe Biden and Paul Ryan – serious in tenor – were not as stirring as the question itself, because unless you are a professional political operative whose job it is to attack the other side, you recognize the wisdom in that soldier’s words. Raddatz did not mention what the soldier’s political allegiance was, and it would have been beside the point. What mattered is that he is an American, and he believes that much of the tone of the campaign has been beneath the dignity of what Americans should expect.

Biden repeatedly referred to Ryan as “my friend”; Ryan, at the end of the proceedings, thanked Biden – he referred to him as “Joe” – and said it had been an honor to debate him.

People tend to accord each other that kind of courtesy when they have to look each other in the eye. Friday morning, though, the ad wars will resume, like bombing raids conducted from two miles in the air. The truth of that is undebatable.

Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include “Late Edition: A Love Story,” “Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War,” and “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.”

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile: Who says VP debates don’t matter?

Joe Biden proved tonight that vice presidential debates can – and should - matter. And Martha Raddatz proved that moderators can – and should – moderate. Paul Ryan showed that talking points, an engaging personality and a few personal anecdotes can’t mask bad policy, misinformation and ignorance.

Paul Ryan attempted to dominate the conversation – a bullying tactic he took from Romney’s playbook and that clearly irritated Biden. He rattled off misleading information, half-truths and cooked-up numbers. He made unsubstantiated claims about President Obama, the effects of his policies, both here and abroad, and ignored the context of the last four years: the “Great Recession” and Republican congressional obstructionism. Biden successfully challenged them all.

Raddatz pressed both candidates for specifics and would not be bulldozed. She kept the debate moving, didn’t let it deteriorate (too much), and asked hard questions. At various points, both candidates were uncomfortable; both Biden and Ryan had “I don’t want to answer that” moments. That’s a sign the moderator was doing her job. For the most part, she let them debate, but acted as guide and, well, moderator. It’s a tough line moderators have to walk, but Martha Raddatz did it as well as anybody.

Joe Biden came prepared to argue, to debate and to be Joe. He didn’t allow the “less than candid” Republican claims to go unchallenged. When Ryan brought up “values,” Biden brought up “responsibility,” and the disdain Romney and Ryan have for 47% (or 30%) of the American people. He even countered Ryan’s reference to his “gaffes,” replying, “I always say what I mean.”

Ryan was salesman smooth and knew his talking points. Biden was passionate and “fired up.” Ryan talked; Biden shared experience. Both men could argue, but only Biden was intense – because he spoke – and frowned and gestured and smiled - from his heart as well as his mind.

A young woman, in her early twenties, wrote me after the debate that Joe Biden inspired her with his fervor and honesty to register and to vote.

Yes, this debate mattered. A lot.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease.” She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

First two debates couldn’t be more different

Margaret Hoover
Margaret Hoover
PHOTO: Barry Morgenstein

Margaret Hoover: Ryan ahead on style and substance

Bottom line – this debate will amount to a draw.

Biden, who needed to stop the hemorrhaging of momentum from the Obama-Biden campaign, performed strongly, but was overly aggressive. If he was downright rude, according to many in the Twitterverse, he got a pass from the president’s supporters, who can only hope they see this offense from the commander-in-chief next week. Biden tried to dominate the debate, lost on style and stumbled on substance.

Ryan seemed less confident on foreign policy at the beginning, but recovered on Afghanistan, where he’s visited twice and had a personal anecdote to illustrate his time in Helmand Province. I wish he’d called Biden out when he accused Ryan of voting to “to put two wars on a credit card.” Biden, too, voted for both wars. The high water mark of the performance was Ryan’s fancy footwork early that took 47%-gate off the table in quipping, “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” Even Biden had to chuckle.

This split screen captured the contrast in visions of the two vice presidential candidates on fiscal policy. Appropriately on the left, older Joe Biden, defending big government and modern liberalism’s spending and fiscal denial with a grinning fresh face offering new ideas for fiscal reform and longevity from the right.

Ryan was classy to thank the vice president for the debate, even after having been smirked at for the previous 90 minutes. But Biden’s graciousness to Ryan’s mother once the microphones were cut portrayed his interpersonal warmth that plays so well on the campaign trail.

I think Ryan had the advantage on substance and style. In a national race where both guys are second runner-up, this is effectively a draw for how it plays into the larger campaign narratives.

Margaret Hoover is the author of “American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party.”

William Howell
William Howell

William Howell: Ryan’s challenge was bigger, and he met it

No great surprise, Joe Biden delivered tonight. On the heels of his boss’ withering performance last week, the vice president demonstrated his deep knowledge of domestic and foreign policy issues, fluidly maneuvering between minutiae about tax policy and the draw-down in Afghanistan on the one hand and meta-arguments about the stakes involved in this election on the other. He also scored his share of style point