WASHINGTON — The 90-minute showdown between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan may be most remembered for Biden’s grinning, laughing and even mocking his younger opponent. But the more lasting impact was reinforcing how this election is an unusually telling referendum on how people want America governed – and a call to arms for each party’s base.
Biden forcefully recited the Democratic mantra in ways that Democrats needed to hear after President Barack Obama let them down with an underwhelming performance in his first debate against Republican Mitt Romney.
Biden spoke with the passion and warmth Obama lacked. Biden, a skilled politician at ease talking to people, often addressing Ryan as “my friend,” effortlessly using anecdotes about his family to make his points, and turning serious and even somber when detailing his views on abortion.
His language was plain and pointed. There were no academic talking points about the perils of Romney’s tax cuts – “The middle class got knocked on their heels,” Biden protested. “The recession crushed them. They need some help now. The last people who need help are 120,000 families for another . . . $500 billion tax cut.”
He vigorously defended the Obama administration’s slow, arguably steady economic progress. “I don’t know how long it will take” to get the jobless rate, 7.8 percent last month, to drop further. But don’t worry, he urged: “We’re going to give you a fair shot again.”
Ryan presented the Republican line, talking tough on foreign policy and turning to the private sector to repair the economy. It was an almost scholarly performance, more from the head than the heart.
“We have three bottom lines” on taxes, he said: “Don’t raise the deficit, don’t raise taxes on the middle class, and don’t lower the share of income that is borne by the high-income earners.”
History says vice presidential debates rarely matter, since people vote for president, not the running mate.
Still, in a skintight race with an unusually polarized electorate, where almost anything can make a difference, it’s likely the Biden-Ryan debate in Danville, Ky., will further incite the partisans.
On that score, Biden and Ryan did what they had to do. Polls taken after the debate reflected the split: A CNN/ORC International survey found 48 percent of registered voters thought Ryan did better, while 44 percent preferred Biden’s performance.
Biden succeeded, though he probably will be lampooned for his frequent smirking and tut-tutting as Ryan spoke.
Democrats probably will appreciate comebacks like his dig at Ryan on Iran and the Middle East: “So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk, what are they talking about?” an animated Biden asked. “Are you talking about, to be more credible – what more can the president do, 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 he’s talking about going to war?” Ryan responded, and Biden, 69, was almost lecturing his 42-year-old opponent.
He spoke about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “who’s been my friend 39 years.” He insisted that in Iran, “the ayatollah sees his economy being crippled.” And finally, “I don’t know what world this guy’s living in.”
Democrats also were buoyed by his plain talk on domestic issues. He cited the Romney remark that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as "victims" dependent on government help. Biden recalled "the people I grew up with, my neighbors, they pay more effective tax than Gov. Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security."
Romney had his own mission Thursday. The former Massachusetts governor, whose patrician image got a makeover in the first debate, needed Ryan to continue marketing the brand of sensitive conservatism that Republicans are selling.
Ryan probably pleased Republicans. He stoically stuck to his talking points, refusing to be goaded by Biden’s prodding. Ryan insisted Iran was now four years closer to a nuclear weapon. No they aren’t, said Biden. “Of course they are,” said Ryan.
He repeated the Romney view that America looks weak, a dangerous sign to rogue nations. “When they see us putting daylight between ourselves and our allies in Israel, that gives them encouragement. When they see Russia watering down any further sanctions, the only reason we got a U.N. sanction is because Russia watered it down and prevented these central bank sanctions in the first place. So when they see this kind of activity, they are encouraged to continue, and that’s the problem,” he said.
Running mates occasionally make a difference in close races, most notably Lyndon Johnson’s ability to deliver Texas and its crucial electoral votes to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Ryan could swing Wisconsin, where a Quinnipiac poll taken Oct. 4-9 showed Obama up 3 points in a state once thought to be safely Democratic.
More significantly, each candidate has cemented his standing as a partisan crowd-pleaser, able to stir the faithful the way the cooler Romney and Obama often cannot.