Winner: Joe Biden
Scores: Biden 80 | Ryan 75
Judge: Ray D’Cruz
Joe Biden won the vice presidential debate because Paul Ryan, when pressed on detail, struggled. Repeatedly, as individual arguments progressed, Ryan’s positions were brought undone. While ordinarily that would make it a big win for Biden, Ryan’s overall messages were more compelling while Biden reverted a little bit too often to the “trust us” position.
On domestic issues, Ryan struggled as arguments developed. The Vice President trapped the Congressman effectively on the charge of “green pork”, pointing out the Congressman’s support for the policy within his own constituency. Ryan was unconvincing in his defence of Romney’s GM position (he’s a “car guy” – which inadvertently conjured images of the Romney family garage). While Ryan did not contest the Biden accusation that he would reduce college tuition deductions, he offered a strange anecdote about the Romney family funding tuition for another family. The random bout of generosity, beyond the imagination of most voters may only have helped the overall Democrat narrative that Romney pays too little tax and doesn’t think government is responsible. Finally on abortion, Ryan clearly wanted the issue to go away and allowed Biden to close it persuasively without challenge on the issue of Supreme Court nominations.
On foreign policy issues the Ryan attacks came to little. There was initial opposition on Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, but as each issue was argued, the differences between Democrat and Republican positions evaporated. On Syria, Ryan’s opposition turned into a complaint about US praise for Assad. On Iran, Ryan agreed on Biden’s assessment of the threat and consequent approaches. On Afghanistan the 2014 withdrawal date was agreed to, subject to conditions that could not be explained. Ryan did make some consistent inroads on defence cuts though, undermining the overall sense of commitment to security.
Biden approached his debate aggressively. He had too after the first presidential debate. But at times he overdid it. There was a balance to be struck and he may not have got it quite right. But, from a pure debating point of view, he mixed aggression with humour and emotion, and the combination was quite compelling. Ryan offered a steadier approach. He was respectful, and from time to time challenged.
For all of the above, the debate could have been a slaughter, but it was not. Ryan made some significant gains in his overall messages: that things are not working, that a clear plan is required, that he has a plan and that Obama has disappointed. He just couldn’t back them up. Biden on the other hand too often resorted to the “trust me” line. At one point he buttressed an argument on healthcare by asking voters to “follow your instinct” – one of the more spectacularly ineffective debate lines of the night – but almost certainly reaching out to those whose biases say that Democrats are better for health policy. Good politics, bad debating. In the end though, detail helped Biden win the night.