Today’s debate between US Vice-President Joe Biden and Republican contender Paul Ryan was far more combative, interactive, and fact-heavy than the first presidential debate — and as to the winner, you can pick your own depending on your politics.

During the one and only vice-presidential debate of the election cycle, the blow-by-blow commentary from both Left and Right on Twitter and in live blogs favoured their own candidate, with the Right arguing that Biden had been smirking, over-aggressive and scattered towards the end of the debate — while many on the Left thought that Biden had done enormous damage to Ryan and the Republicans’ policies on Medicare and Afghanistan.

There is justice on both sides, but watching the post-debate commentary it was clear that right-wing outlets such as Fox News were focusing on the form of the debate, while the Left focused on the content.

From the start it was clear Biden was not going to make any of the mistakes of underselling and failing to contest Ryan, as President Barack Obama had done in the first debate. From the start Biden was ready to take the fight back to Ryan, who had the advantage of being able to project a series of unfounded promises, rather than defending a mixed record, both at home and abroad.

The debate began on tricky ground for Biden, with the question of the Benghazi consulate attack being uppermost, and repeated accusations of multiple stories being put about by the White House. Ryan was on solid and familiar ground, charging that the White House had taken their eye off the ball, on the anniversary of 9/11. Even here, however, Biden managed to snap back, arguing that Ryan’s budget plan would have reduced embassy security budgets by 300 million dollars.

Biden got another — and very telling — blow in when Ryan went after him on another vulnerable issue: the effectiveness of the stimulus, and the pallid nature of the economic recovery. Biden, unlike Obama, wasn’t afraid to make the failure of the Bush era front-and-centre, and also managed to get in a mention of a smoking pistol on Ryan’s side — that Ryan’s office had sent two letters to the White House seeking stimulus funds for projects in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin.

Ryan had earlier said that his office had sent such letters out without his knowledge, but he had to own up to them here. The moment was the first of a few moments that Ryan gave up as hostage to quick-cut ads. Biden also had to act fast on the Iran question, as Ryan managed to bang the old Republican charge that the Democrats were “weak on defense”. The alleged threat of Iran allows the Republicans to present a chest-beating version of national defence without being identified with adventures like Iraq — Biden’s move was to state that he had known “Bibi” (Netanyahu) for 40 years, that he’d been in the room when Obama spoke with Bibi etc, that Obama had gathered the world to its side etc etc, then Israel again … and it was all pretty nauseating to any even mildly leftish watchers but there you go.

Personally I thought Biden won it on most issues, and that Ryan was undermined repeatedly — but I suspect that each side will identify with its own in assessing wins and losses. On taxes and cutting spending, Ryan’s most telling blow was the argument that the Democrats’ plan to let Bush-era tax cuts for $1 million per year-plus people would inevitably turn into tax rises for people of lesser incomes, ringing a big bell for those who have been gobsmacked by the numbers behind the stimulus package.

Biden responded with some basic populist and utterly correct class warfare against another handout to the rich. Following some very specific exchanges on Ryan’s numbers, and how the Romney-Ryan team would pay for their tax cuts by “closing loopholes”, Biden again took a clear advantage on two issues: Medicare and Afghanistan. Here, the truly twisted nature of current US politics came out — Ryan, the fiscal conservative, is criticising the Democrats for “removing” $716 billion from the fund, which covers virtually all Americans 65+. Since this is a product of the Democrats projecting savings in Medicare — an utterly out-of-control programme — in part by instituting some spending ceilings, the debate has both sides twisted around.

Biden also broke out of the farm here, and spoke directly to camera, addressing senior citizens and asked them: “who do you trust? Who do you trust more to handle these basic institutions?” Since Ryan has advanced a voucher system for Medicare — which would force seniors to go and purchase their health insurance on an open market — Biden was on firm ground here. Ryan also tangled himself badly on Afghanistan, arguing that US forces should be getting out, but that they should also be redeployed in areas where they are currently being replaced by Afghan troops not currently engaged in shooting them in the back.

Look, as you can see I’m struggling to play a straight bat here, it appeared to me that Biden was clearly winning it. Whatever points Ryan made, he didn’t manage to pin Biden in the way Biden caught him.

Towards the end however, Biden began to falter, as Ryan’s superior physical energy began to win out (attended by the consumption of a frightening amount of water, much remarked through Twitter, and the notion that he would soon start pissing like a horse under the table). On abortion, well, neither side was going to win anyone from the other side over, but Ryan managed to give a snappier if more nauseatingly-sentimental version — though Biden also managed to focus his side’s energies through the pure fear of what would happen, should future Supreme Court justices be appointed by a Romney-Ryan ticket. Ryan also managed to snap out a more forceful ending, as Biden stumbled on his words — but the latter still managed to get in a swipe about Romney’s “47%” remarks — “that’s my mother and father Mitt Romney was talking about, that’s soldiers in the field”. It was a reprise but may be a telling one.

There’s no way I could call it as other than a victory for Biden, but it seems that the pundits scored it that way too — on Faux News, there was near total focus on the presentation of the candidates and how likeable they were. There was a priceless shot of Sean Hannity looking visibly pissed off, as Fox’s own focus group failed to call the debate for Ryan. While Fox commentators got the vapours over Boden’s “rudeness” — fancy! — on left-leaning MSNBC, they were pretty ecstatic, certainly compared to the last outing.

A CBS snap poll of independents seemed to confirm that opinion, giving the debate to Biden 50% to Ryan 31% — nothing like the Romney win over Obama, but a win nevertheless. Now it will be a question of who wins the spin, and whether Obama can channel enough of Biden’s edge in the next presidential debate, on Tuesday — the last chance for him to assail Romney’s economic plans, and quite possibly the most important night of his life.

Peter Fray

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