It was one moment of the vice-presidential debate when the two opponents personally butted heads. Most of the 90 minutes were spent in defense — or attacking the record — of public statements and even the characters of Obama and Romney.
With almost as many years in the U.S. Senate as Ryan is old, Biden smiled condescendingly as he worked the opening foreign-policy rounds on Libya, Iran and Afghanistan. Repeatedly, he out-punched the less prepared Ryan, derisively dismissed as “my friend,” with shouts of: “That’s a bunch of malarkey,” “Not a single thing he said is accurate,” “This is a bunch of stuff” and “Look, here’s the deal.”
So tough was Biden in such clinches that, at one point, Ryan pleaded: “Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don’t keep interrupting each other.”
After stumbling on during discussions about Iran and Afghanistan, Ryan regained his footing in the more familiar arena of domestic policy, fighting Biden to a near standstill and leaving viewers to choose sides between the two parties’ starkly different viewpoints on taxes, job cuts and Medicare. And though each is Catholic, their views on abortion diverged, with Ryan opposing abortion in almost all cases and Biden supporting Roe v. Wade.
The vice president turned and directly challenged TV viewers to consider Supreme Court appointments when choosing between Obama and Romney.
“The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees. That’s how close Roe v. Wade is. Just ask yourself, with Robert Bork being the chief adviser on the court for — for Mr. Romney, who do you think he’s likely to appoint? Do you think he’s likely to appoint someone like Scalia or someone else on the court far right that would outlaw (inaudible) — outlaw abortion?”
The congressman drew the audience laugh of the night when defending against gaffe-prone Biden’s reminder of Romney’s 47-percent remarks. “With respect to that quote,” Ryan retorted, “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”
In the wake of the ensuing outburst from the Centre College crowd, Biden shot back, “But I always say what I mean. And so does Romney.” Later, he added, “That little soliloquy on 47 percent — [if] you think [Romney] made a mistake … I got a bridge to sell you.”
All night, the split-screen TV shots showed the two men seated before the moderator at a table, oddly appearing to look off-screen. Biden gazed to the left and Ryan to the right, as if talking to someone on opposing window ledges. In a cagey move, Ryan turned directly to face the camera and ended the debate with a rehearsed attack on the Obama administration.
“The choice is clear, and [it] rests with you,” he said. “Thank you.”
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.