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Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan: Highlights From the Vice-Presidential Debate

Joe Biden Paul Ryan
Lintao Zhang / Alex Wong, Getty Images

Things kicked off around 9 p.m. Eastern in Danville, Kentucky, on the campus of Centre College, with Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan meeting for their one and only debate during this election campaign. Martha Raddatz of ABC News moderated the debate, which began when Biden, the former six-term senator from Delaware, and Ryan, the current seven-term representative from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, walked onstage, shook hands and took their seats.

Here are some highlights of what happened:

  • The first question concerned the events last month in Libya. The vice president answered first, calling it a tragedy, adding, “We will find and bring to justice the men who did this.”
  • Ryan then replied by saying the administration misled the public and bungled the Libyan situation: “If we’re hit by terrorists, we’re going to call it what it is: a terrorist attack.” Ryan continued with a longer indictment of the administration’s foreign policy.
  • That led to the first memorable sound bite of the night. Biden responded by saying, “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey. Not a thing he said is accurate.” Malarkey is a fun word to hear out loud. Biden later described Ryan’s complaints as “a bunch of stuff,” which we were then informed is Irish for “malarkey.” Fun!
  • The discussion turned soon to domestic policy. Biden criticized Ryan’s running mate’s infamous comments on the “47 percent”, saying those people in the 47 percent “pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays.”
  • Ryan later replied to Biden’s 47 percent comment by cleverly referencing Biden’s well-known tendency to commit gaffes, saying, “I think the vice president very well knows, that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” That got some good laughs from the crowd.
  • The moderator did well to keep both men focused on the topics at hand, which often featured a very animated, at-times emotional Joe Biden and a calmer, generally unruffled Paul Ryan battling back and forth. Another memorable exchange occurred during discussion of each campaign’s proposals for Medicare. Biden rattled off statistics and at one point turned to the camera and said, “Folks, trust your instincts on this. … Their ideas are old and their ideas are bad.”
  • Ryan had a retort ready: “Here’s the problem: they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar, turning Medicare into a piggy bank for Obamacare.”
  • The next big argument was about taxes, which, stunningly, led to many large numbers and complicated statistics being yelled and flung about. It was loud. Loud seems the best way to describe that particular segment.
  • “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?” was Biden’s response to Ryan’s bringing up JFK’s tax proposals.
  • Talk then returned to foreign policy, specifically the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both men lowered their voices to what appeared to be “sober foreign-policy tone.” Biden insisted that American troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014, saying, “We are leaving in 2014, period. … It’s their responsibility, not America’s.”
  • Ryan criticized the broader picture, saying that what is going on in the world is “the absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.”
  • Another good line: “The calendar works the same every year,” said Ryan, responding to Biden’s discussion of when the fighting season in Afghanistan was.
  • Raddatz moved on to Syria, which gave Biden an opening to say, “The last thing this country needs is to get in another war in the Middle East.” 
  • The final area of discussion was each candidate’s Catholic faith and how it affected their views on abortion. Ryan went first, describing his own pro-life commitment then stating that the Romney administration policy would be against abortion with exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.
  • Biden then drew a difference between his own personal views, as influenced by his Catholic faith, and his policy position, which is pro-choice: “I do not believe we have a right to tell other people how to control their bodies.” 
  • The final question regarded the lack of civility between the two campaigns, which, naturally, led to both men attacking each other. Democracy!

A few surprises: there seemed to be more discussion of foreign policy than domestic; Biden, who is known for overusing (and misusing) the word “literally,” did not say it once; and no one mentioned any Sesame Street characters. We look forward to the upcoming ‘Saturday Night Live’ parodies—they have plenty to work with.

One instant-reaction poll came from CBS News: 50% said Biden won, 31% said Ryan won, and 19% said it was a tie. Another, from CNN, had 48% favoring Ryan and 44% favoring Biden.

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