Presidential campaigns are akin to gestational periods, with months of campaigning giving voters time to slowly form their impressions of a candidate.
Against that backdrop, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin stepped onto likely his biggest stage yet on Thursday night and showed an American electorate still getting to know the Republican vice presidential nominee that he is no pushover.
In a contentious 90-minute debate with Vice President Joe Biden, Ryan engaged in a frontal assault on a politician nearly three decades his elder. And he didn’t cower even when the discussion started with and kept coming back to foreign affairs - a supposed weakness for an economic policy wonk like him and strength for a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee like his opponent.
For his part, Biden surely invigorated his fellow Democrats, who had complained last week that President Obama was too passive in the face of a similarly aggressive debate performance by his own rival, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The vice president castigated Romney and Ryan for describing whole chunks of the US electorate as freeloaders, bringing up the “47-percent” comment made by Romney at a private fund-raiser that Obama failed to raise a week ago.
But Biden, at 69, also verged on losing his cool with the 42-year-old congressman, constantly interrupting him as would a parent exasperated with the commentary of a chatty teen. He even snapped at debate moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News at one point.
While warming to Democrats, such aggressiveness carried the risk of turning off moderate, independent voters in a race polling nationally within the margin of error. And it played into a well-rehearsed debate thematic delivered by Ryan to the audience at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and watching elsewhere on television or computer screen.
“Barack Obama, four years ago running for president, said if you don’t have any fresh ideas, use stale tactics to scare voters,” Ryan said. “If you don’t have a good record to run on, paint your opponent as someone people should run from.”
The pace was set at the outset, as Biden and Ryan clashed over any responsibility the administration faced for the attack on a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
While the administration first blamed protestors incited by an anti-Muslim video made by US filmmakers, it now says the attack was terrorism plotted to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the US.
“Look, if we’re hit by terrorists we’re going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack,” Ryan said. “Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him. Shouldn’t we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi, a place where we knew that there was an Al Qaeda cell with arms?”
Broadening his point, Ryan added: “This Benghazi issue would be a tragedy in and of itself, but unfortunately it’s indicative of a broader problem. And that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more chaotic and us less safe.”
Bristling, Biden retorted: “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Asked by Raddatz to explain, he added: “No. 1, this lecture on embassy security, the congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for, No. 1. So much for the embassy security piece. No. 2. Governor Romney, before he knew the facts, before he even knew that our ambassador was killed, he was out making a political statement which was panned by the media around the world. ... I mean, these guys bet against America all the time.”
The vice president went after Ryan and Romney on Medicare cuts included in a budget-cutting plan that heretofore had been responsible for most of the congressman’s national prominence.
“What we did is, we saved $716 billion and put it back, applied it to Medicare,” Biden said in fending off a Ryan criticism of Obamacare. “We cut the cost of Medicare. We stopped overpaying insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals. The AMA supported what we did. AARP endorsed what we did. And it extends the life of Medicare to 2024. They want to wipe this all out.”
In a folksy aside that is part of Biden’s political persona, the vice president added: “Folks, follow your instincts on this one.”
When Ryan again accused the administration of funding its federal universal health care program with a Medicare cut, Biden repeatedly interrupted him. A debate transcript showing whole paragraphs of conversation disintegrated into a stream of one-liners as the two furiously exchanged charges and counter-charges.
That prompted the congressman to roll out another seemingly prepared line that cut to the core of his opponent and the situation confronting him and Obama.
“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.”
Biden shot back: “Well, don’t take all the four minutes then.”
On the subject of taxes, Biden and Ryan had a role-reversal.
After the vice president repeated the administration’s mantra that the budget deficit cannot be cut without a blend both of program cuts and tax increases on wealthier Americans, Ryan urged the American people to listen to him.
“Look, if you taxed every person and successful business making over $250,000 at 100 percent, it would only run the government for 98 days,” said Ryan. “There aren’t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending. And, so, the next time you hear them say, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll get a few wealthy people to pay their fair share,’ watch out, middle class, the tax bill’s coming to you.”
For his part, Biden did what many analysts said Obama failed to do - call out their opponents for supposed political hypocrisy - when he and Ryan clashed on the effectiveness of the administration’s stimulus program.
Ryan said: “When Barack Obama was elected, his party controlled everything. They had the ability to do everything of their choosing. And look at where we are right now. They passed the stimulus. The idea that we could borrow $831 billion, spend it on all of these special interest groups, and that it would work out just fine, that unemployment would never get to 8 percent - it went up above 8 percent for 43 months. They said that, right now, if we just passed this stimulus, the economy would grow at 4 percent. It’s growing at 1.3.”
Biden interrupted as Ryan went on to accuse the administration of supporting “crony capitalism” with stimulus money, noting that the congressman had sent him two letters seeking stimulus funds for Wisconsin companies.
Ryan, stammering at one point, replied, “On two occasions we advocated for constituents who were applying for grants. That’s what we do. We do that for all constituents who are.”
Biden, flashing a grin, said: “I love that. I love that. This was such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying - writes the Department of Energy - a letter saying, ‘The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.’ His words. And now he’s sitting here looking at me.”
In their closings, Biden channeled Obama’s closing of eight days earlier, casting the administration as protectors of the middle class.
“All they’re looking for, Martha, all they’re looking for is an even shot,” Biden said to the moderator. “Whenever you give them the shot, they’ve done it. They’ve done it. Whenever you’ve leveled the playing field, they’ve been able to move. And they want a little bit of peace of mind. And the president and I are not going to rest until that playing field is leveled.”
Ryan followed the template laid down by his running mate, repeating some of the specific figures Romney used in his debate with Obama to describe the electorate’s coming choice in more concrete terms.
“President Obama, he had his chance,” the congressman said. “He made his choices. His economic agenda, more spending, more borrowing, higher taxes, a government takeover of health care. It’s not working. It’s failed to create the jobs we need. Twenty-three million Americans are struggling for work today. Fifteen percent of Americans are in poverty. This is not what a real recovery looks like. You deserve better. Mitt Romney and I want to earn your support. We’re offering real reforms for a real recovery for every American.”
Then, the baby-faced lawmaker the country is still getting to know made a tangible request on behalf of him and his running mate.
“The choice is clear, and the choice rests with you,” said Ryan. “And we ask you for your vote.”
Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.