Biden clearly dominated much of the debate, and part of that was simply a function of his greater aggressiveness. He frequently interrupted and corrected Ryan, who at times seemed flummoxed and at a loss for how to respond. Ryan predicted before the debate that Biden was going to come at him like a “cannonball,” and he was right. Unfortunately for Ryan, knowing this didn’t seem to do him much good. The cannonball hit him, and he didn’t score very many hits of his own in response.
As in the presidential debate, a generally poor job by the moderator made this possible. Once again, the candidate with the weaker debating skills was often overwhelmed by his more confident opponent. The moderator’s failure was offset somewhat by her better, more pointed questions. Even so, the debate sometimes devolved into little more than a shouting match. Overall, Raddatz did a poorer job than Lehrer. The only thing that was improved over last week was the quality of the questions.
On the fiscal and domestic policy issues that Ryan was most comfortable talking about, he was at his most effective, but even here he made a number of mistakes or failed attacks. He didn’t have much of a response when he was called out for his requests for stimulus funding and his attempt to use the unemployment rate in Biden’s hometown against him flopped. He had to fall back on the GOP ticket’s Medicare demagoguery when challenged on his ticket’s proposal for Medicare reform, and he fell into the trap of talking about Social Security privatization. There were also some missed opportunities for Ryan. When Biden defended the HHS mandate, Ryan didn’t challenge him on his presentation of it, and left unanswered Biden’s shots at his commitment to Catholic social teaching.
It was on foreign policy where Ryan was most obviously outmatched, as I assumed he would be. Especially in the sections of the debate on Afghanistan and Syria, Ryan was stuck defending Romney’s very similar positions on both while trying to argue against administration policy. It wasn’t an enviable task, and Ryan was limited by what he had to work with, but it doesn’t change the fact that Ryan didn’t inspire much confidence that he is prepared to be president if the need arose. It’s not surprising that Ryan didn’t do very well in these sections. He isn’t “fluent” on foreign policy, and that should have been obvious all along. Ryan’s boosters did him a great disservice by pretending that he was.
Ryan’s limited experience on foreign policy was on display all night. Perhaps the most painful moments were when he attacked the administration’s response to the Green movement. This was the clearest example of Ryan’s reliance on standard movement conservative talking points on foreign policy for the entire debate, and it was clear that he thought that everyone was supposed to find this damning so that all he had to do was mention it. For almost all voters, Ryan’s lack of experience and preparation won’t matter, but he did nothing to reassure worried voters that a Romney administration would not keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan well into the future or that it wouldn’t pursue a more aggressive policy in Syria.
Biden largely ignored the first question he was asked about intelligence regarding the consulate attack, and used it as a springboard to recite the usual list of administration foreign policy decisions that they want to celebrate. Despite some resistance from Ryan, Biden was able to skate through the debate without facing much criticism on the handling of the consulate attack and its aftermath. As usual, the Libyan intervention and its effects received no attention, and it’s not as if Ryan was going to bring them up. Biden emphasized U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, which created the misleading impression that there would be no U.S. forces in the country beyond that date. That isn’t correct, but Ryan didn’t challenge him on this, which allowed him to say it several times without being contradicted. Biden exaggerated the extent of U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, which has been relatively minimal and indirect. He kept pushing the idea that a Romney administration would get the U.S. into a new war. Despite Ryan’s denials on this point, they weren’t terribly convincing. That remains a problem for the Republican ticket.
The most disappointing thing about the foreign policy sections of the debate was how fixated on the Near East the questioning was. There was a brief reference to the “reset,” but Ryan attacked it only indirectly and Biden didn’t make much effort to defend it. U.S. policies in most other parts of the world went completely unmentioned, and someone watching one of these debates for the first time could be forgiven if he concluded that U.S. foreign policy concerned no more than three or four other countries.