John Baer: Ryan vs. Biden: Spirited duel not likely to change many minds

Facing the more experienced VP, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan held his own on Thursday night.
Facing the more experienced VP, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan held his own on Thursday night. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 12, 2012

SO, OLD-SCHOOL, "big-effin'-deal" Joe Biden vs. young Paul "the Wonk of Wisconsin" Ryan turned out to be pretty much a draw.

Biden was fired up, aggressive and animated, but often annoying as he frequently laughed at Ryan, interrupted Ryan or talked over Ryan.

One thing was "malarkey," another was "a bunch of stuff."

And the laughing seemed patronizing.

Ryan was mostly precise and direct in delivery but danced on specifics, offered canned answers and kept drinking water, perhaps a sign of dry-mouth nerves.

At one point he said he understood that Biden was "under duress" to play catch-up on a campaign playing field that's recently changed - certainly a practiced line.

But for his part, the 69-year-old, gaffe-prone Biden got through Thursday night's debate without any obvious faux pas.

And the 42-year-old congressman (a Biden son, R. Hunter Biden, is the same age) held his own against a more experienced opponent.

Likely, the encounter will have all the staying power of the last VP debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Anyone remember anything game-changing or even mildly noteworthy from Dick Cheney vs. Joe Lieberman 12 years ago?

Yeah, me neither.

Still, it would have been tough for Biden to be any worse than President Obama was a week ago; it would have been hard for Ryan to be any better than Mitt Romney was a week ago.

Biden and Ryan mostly managed to achieve individual political goals.

Biden's was to stanch any further ticket-bleeding; Ryan's was to finish on his feet.

There were moments.

An at-times-testy exchange over the recent murder of a U.S. ambassador in Libya had Ryan saying the administration should have provided more security.

This brought a slam from Biden that Ryan wants to cut funds to guard embassies.

Biden went hard at Romney's "47 percent" remarks (something Obama failed to do in the first debate) saying he's "had it up to here" with the notion that half the country is "unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives."

Ryan came back with a line that drew laughs: "I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out your mouth the right way."

They dueled on the economy, Medicare, Social Security, taxes and abortion but offered little that's new or different from ongoing claims and counterclaims common in both campaigns.

There was nothing from Ryan about Biden recently saying that the middle class got "buried" during the last four years.

But then there was nothing from Biden about Ryan claiming to have run a marathon in an hour less than he actually did.

Closing statements reflected each candidate's style.

Biden was chatty, sounded genuine, talked about how the administration "inherited a God-awful circumstance," and he brought up the "47 percent" again.

Ryan was robotic, sounded scripted, talked about Obama's "more spending, more borrowing, a government takeover of health care" not working.

But since both met minimal expectations, the electoral universe remains unchanged. The needle likely won't move much.

The debate did not end Biden's career, even though the central-Kentucky town in which it was held, Danville, was named last year by Money magazine as America's fourth- best place to retire.

It did not skyrocket Ryan. But it allowed him to escape unharmed - unlike Frank Sinatra's character in the 1965 WWII prisoner-escape flick "Von Ryan's Express," but much like the film's closing line: "If just one man escapes, it's a victory."

What it did was help set the stage for the second presidential debate Tuesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. - after which this VP dustup will be all but forgotten.


Contact John Baer at baerj@phillynews.com. For his recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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