VP debate: Clash of the demi-titans


Most debate watchers expect Joe Biden to flex his foreign policy chops in Thursday night's faceoff against Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.


John Moore

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — When vice presidential candidates speak, almost no one listens. Debates between the second-in-commands are usually a big yawn, with little political fallout on the rest of the campaign.

There are, of course, exceptions. When Sarah Palin met Joe Biden in 2008, the contest garnered almost 70 million viewers — more than any other VP debate in history, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Palin, with her high heels and folksy, can-I-call-you-Joe demeanor, became an instant celebrity, but this did not greatly aid the campaign of Sen. John McCain.

Thursday night’s meeting between Vice President Biden, a veteran politician, and Congressman Paul Ryan, the young policy wonk, has taken on new importance given last week’s impactful duel in Denver, in which a newly energized Mitt Romney triumphed over an uncharacteristically passive and listless President Barack Obama.

That debate has dramatically changed the dynamic of the campaign. Romney had been trailing in the polls, with basement-level likeability ratings and infinitesimal approval from women. He is now resurgent, virtually tied with the president in important swing states. The latest NBC/WSJ/Marist poll shows Romney making significant gains in several states.

Given this, many people will tune in to the Biden/Ryan battle, hoping for some fireworks.

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Fireworks there surely will be. Experts predict that Biden will try to make up for the president’s lackluster performance in Denver, attacking Ryan on Republican weak points that Obama let slip.

Romney’s notorious “47 percent” comment — in which he dismissed almost half of the American population as irresponsible moochers who do not pay taxes, take no responsibility for their lives, and, perhaps most importantly, do not vote Republican — will almost certainly come up. So will Ryan’s plans to privatize Social Security and “voucherize” Medicare, something the Democrats have been attacking with gusto.

In Denver, Romney laid great emphasis on the $716 billion that Obama was supposedly going to take from Medicare to fund his own health plan; Biden is expected to correct the record on that, pointing out that, first, the supposed “cuts” were actually savings, and, second, that Ryan’s own budget had the same $716 deducted from Medicare. Read the figures from Politifact.

The ever combative Ryan will be at some pains to demonstrate his unquestioned budget expertise, while trying his best not to seem at sea on foreign policy issues.

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Biden, for years the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is at home on the subject, which has gained new prominence over the past month.

The attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of 9/11, has moved front and center in the campaign. The death of four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, has become uncomfortably politicized, used by the Republicans to try and portray the Obama administration as weak, ineffectual, and even a bit dishonest in its explanations of the tragedy.

On Thursday, the House Oversight Committee held hearings on the Benghazi attack, grilling administration officials on the circumstances surrounding the violence. At issue was the security situation: Why, demanded a Republican-led panel, was there not more protection at the consulate, given concerns expressed by members of the US security service about the dangers?

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Pundits and journalists covering the hearings expressed surprise at the level of partisan bickering; but with just 26 days to go before the elections, almost anything will serve as political fodder, even the tragic deaths of Americans.

Another issue likely to raise its head Thursday night will be the candidates’ positions on abortion. Both men are Catholic, and both parties are vying for the Catholic vote — roughly one-fourth of the electorate.

Given the Catholic Church’s hard-line stance on abortion, the issue could prove difficult. Ryan has consistently adopted a pro-life position, co-sponsoring a bill that would prohibit federal funding for abortion even in cases of rape. He has advocated removing the “health exception” that allows abortion when the life or health of the mother is at stake, saying in 2000 that it creates “a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack truck through it.” Watch the clip here.

Biden, on the other hand, supports the president’s position on a woman’s right to choose. But he has made several statements on abortion indicating that he is conflicted about the issue, in part because of his religion.

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“Look, I’m a practicing Catholic, and [abortion] is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility,” Biden told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2007. Read more on Biden's abortion stance.

Biden originally opposed Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States, but has come to support it “because it’s as close to a consensus that can exist in a society as heterogeneous as ours.”

With the all-important women’s vote hanging in the balance, abortion will almost certainly come up. Obama started a firestorm of protest when he included a contraception mandate in his Affordable Care Act, requiring employers to cover birth control. The Catholic Church, in particular, has opposed the measure, and Republicans, including Ryan, have criticized the Democrats for engaging in a “war on religion.”

No one really expects that the VP faceoff in Kentucky will reverse trends set off by last week’s contest that gave Romney a much-needed victory; that will be left to the next presidential debate, to be held on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, Long Island.

But at the very least, Thursday night’s contest between Biden and Ryan will supply ample cud for political pundits to chew on from now until Hempstead.

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