The 2012 vice presidential debate: Who won?

Oct 12, 2012

Bob Kaiser:

Wasn't this one different--and better--than the first round? I certainly thought so. The moderator was excellent, I thought, and so, in their very different ways, were the candidates. The first talking heads seemed to agree that Congressman Ryan and Vice President Biden both fulfilled their missions, and for a change, I agreed with the talking heads. Biden offered the passion and the argumentation that Democrats so missed from their President last week. Ryan, by appearing plausible as a future president and apparently knowledgeable on a wide range of issues, reassured Republicans that Governor Romney had made a good choice for veep. Neither man goofed, though I'm sure Joe Biden's many grins and guffaws will be criticized by some. So will Ryan's not-always-sure-footed attempts to reduce the complex situations in Lybia, Syria and Afghanistan to a rather simple formula. Is President Obama's foreign policy really "unraveling"?

At noon Friday I hope we will have lots of comments from readers on these and other aspects of the debate.  

Questions: What did you think of Ryan on foreign policy? What did you make of Biden's reactions to Ryan?  Did Biden make good use of Romney's 47 percent remarks? Did Ryan fudge on defense spending, which Romney has promised to significantly increase? What about the tax argument--who got the best of that? Was Ryan effective when he promised "bipartisan solutions" to the question of what tax breaks and loopholes should be changed? Or was he just avoiding being specific? We'll have a chat lasting about an hour. Hope you can join us.

Associate editor Bob Kaiser discussed what was said, who said it, if either candidate was helped or hurt by the debate and more.

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Greetings, and thanks for joining this discussion. I welcome questios of all civil kinds, and I particularly solicit your critiques of the debate and the debaters, many of which I will post without comment, to try to give you a sense of how Washington Post readers reacted to the event.  I'll type as fast as I can for about an hour.

My understanding of Romney's defense policies is that he plans to spend considerably more than we are spending now even with the Afghan war winding down. What is he planning to spend this on? Is this prudent given his plans to reduce taxes considerably? Dick Langill

Romney has repeatedly called for spending 4 percent of gross domestic product--that is, 4 percent of the economy--on defense. This would be a huge increase over current levels. The administration counters that not even the Pentagon has a plan for spending so much money, and Romney has not specified where he would spend it, besides saying the Navy has to be much bigger--though I haven't seen him explain why that's the case.  Ryan did not mention this proposal last night, confusingly--he changed the proposal He said Romney-Ryan would not increase defense spending, they just wouldn't cut it.  

Are the research papers that Ryan keeps mentioning actually peer-reviewed? Do they even say what he and Romney claim they do, (i't's revenue neutral')? Kessler, the WP fact checker, has said repeatedly that one of them actually disproves the claim, even though it's made by a Romney supporter.

Thanks for this. I've asked Haley Crum, my ace producer, to give you a link to today's Fact Checker piece by Glenn Kessler, which I recommend to everyone. In it Glenn explains about these "studies," which inf act aren't all studies, and aren't very persuasive. 


Click here for Glenn Kessler's fact-check of the VP debate.

Is it appropriate to act like everything your opponent says is laughable, even the most serious of issues? I found Biden's behavior offensive and infantile.

Thanks for this. I sympathize with your desire for civility, but I think we've both got to accept the fact that it isn't going to happen any time soon. Maybe never! American politics have been incivil, or is it uncivil, from the beginning. It seems to be part of our national character. 

I'll admit my bias towards the Repubs this time around, but I found myself getting very angry with Biden's performance. He didn't come to debate. He came to shout down Ryan and make sure he couldn't get his argument out to the audience (and was quite effective, even if I think it will backfire with those outside the left). I remember a specific exchange where Ryan was talking and you just heard this drone in the background of "nope, lie, not true, gaFAWWW, etc." Also Biden's dentures were quite blinding.

THanks for posting. Those dentures were certainly noteworthy. So was Ryan's shirt collar, a good two sizes too big. And we should both be ashamed of noticing such things!

Bob, do you think it's fair of you to host this discussion since you are a registered Democrat, and no matter what anyone says in favor of Ryan, you will compensate for Biden?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to repeat, for the umpteenth time, that I have been a registered independent for decades,, which can be painful in the District of Columbia, where the only important elections occur in Democratic primaries in which I cannot vote.  I have strong views on many issues, but do not consider myself a partisan. I have repeatedly written critically about the evolution of the Democratic Party in modern times (enumerated in my articles and my last book, SO DAMN MUCH MONEY--yes, a plug.) So you are free to disagree with me, but not on the grounds that I am a partisan Democrat, which I am not.

Was Paul Ryan debating against two people? Certainly. Biased moderator from the start to the end.

I've got several comments like this, and I confess I don't understand them. I thought Raddatz did a fine job. She stayed in control much of the time. She pressed both men to be specific when neither was eager to be so. In my view a moderator ought to be tough on both sides, not meek and "polite."  Some of you may know the morning talk/news show on the BBC in Britain called "Today." On it the politicians of all parties get grilled quite mercilessly by first-class journalists. I wish we had broadcast journalists and programs like that.

Why did the moderator allow VP Biden to be so rude during the debate? It was disturbing and immature.

Wish you had been the moderator so we could have seen you stop the vice president from being sarcastic and rude. What would be your method, I wonder?

What is the definition of a small business? There seemed to be a very big difference in the two definitions.

Again, I refer you to the Face Checker column today by Glenn Kessler, a link is above. Glenn explains this issue neatly. As Ryan uses the term, "small business" includes any partnership that passes its earnings to its partners and let's them pay the tax. So giant lawfirms with hundreds of millions in revenue, for example, are small businesses.  Read Kessler.

Kudos for Raddatz for addressing the elephant in the room: religion. Biden didn't snap this Democrat out of a funk, but Ryan sure did when he said, "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do." Say what? The framers are spinning in their graves. Contrast this to John Kennedy, who flatly said that he would not take orders from the Vatican, explaining that "[he] would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the first amendment's guarantees of religious liberty."


What will it take for political reporters and pundits to LISTEN to a political debate? Last week President Obama was roundly criticized for not smiling and not paying visible attention to his opponent's remarks, even though he effectively, if dispassionately, rebutted them. And now VP Biden is being criticized for reacting to his opponent's remarks with a smile on his face! Who cares? Why doesn't substance come first? Mr. Ryan is a very influential member of the 212th Congress, accurately described as "the worst Congress ever" by your colleague Ezra Klein for its lack of accomplishments. Mr. Ryan and his party have spent the last two years focusing on political posturing rather than substantive relief for a struggling economy, with an extra large helping of vilification of the President. He has a lot to answer for. And VP Biden made sure he did - finally. He pointed out the holes in Mr. Ryan's domestic proposals and the lack of substance in his foreign policy proposals, quite effectively. But his perspicacious comments are considered less important than the fact that he delivered them with too big a smile to the person sitting across the table from him? Is political analysis really this superficial?

And thanks for this. I am appalled that you feel we have superficial political analysis in this country. Appalled!

    Not. Yes, we have a great deal of superficial and poorly-informed analysis.   But what makes an analyst? All you need is a computer and internet access these days.

Your WaPo colleague Dana Milbank reports that "the Romney-Ryan campaign had instructed moderator Martha Raddatz to address Paul Ryan as 'Mister' rather than 'Congressman,' ” but that she defied them. Do you think this hurt voter perception of Ryan for viewers to be repeatedly reminded last night that Ryan is part of the Congress of which so many have a low opinion?

I saw Dana's reference, and have no first-hand info on these "instructions." But they were silly. Ryan is an important leader in the Republican House, there's no denying that. How this fact affects perceptions of him in the public I cannot say.

It seems to me that both sides need to be questioned only on what they would do in their administration and stop bickering about Obama's record and Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan's records, statements, etc. All of that is theater, when what we need to see are the two plans for the future. Mr. Obama's appears to be his jobs bill and a continuation of his first term agenda that was not passed. Mr. Romney's appears to be a tax cut, defense spending and encouraging more oil production. How are these plans going to work and why is yours better, that's the central question, is it not?

Good points. Thanks.

Why is Biden being criticized for pointing out the factual errors in Ryan's arguments in the manner that he did? Personally, I've never had a poilical discussion in all my life either at the dinner table or a get together where people didn't try and talk over each other at least some of the time.

You eat dinner with rude people? Shocking!

Who won the Vice-Presidential debate?

OK, I've ducked this one long enough. I note that the only meaningful evidence that I've seen about this is a CBS quickie poll of independents. Here are its findings, which I just copied from the CBS News website:


"Fifty percent of uncommitted voters who tuned into Thursday night's vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., said they see Vice President Joe Biden as the winner over Mitt Romney's GOP running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., according to an instant poll taken by CBS News.

Of the 431 polled immediately following the debate, 31 percent deemed Ryan the winner, and 19 percent said they felt it was a tie."

That is much more scientific information than I have on the subject, but it coincided with my impressions last night. Biden was the dominant figure in the debate.  His best moments were very strong; stronger I thought than Ryan's best moments, though he had some good ones, particularly his final statement. 

    I am a strong believer in the cliche that vice presidential debates don't make much difference in a presidential race. But by reassuring and energizing Democrats, Biden may have done his boss a real favor.

At the same time, a lot of people were turned off by his smirks and wisecracks. I expected to see more impact of that in the CBS poll than in fact you see there.  


The moderator was superb and the debate was spirited and interesting to watch. Objectively scored, I think Biden won pretty clearly. But, I think Ryan had a lower bar politically and did what he had to do to not be disqualified as VP which is all he needed to do. (Although Dan Quayle proved that it isn't really required to do that much). Ryan is obviously uncomfortable espousing Romney's stated abortion exceptions and Biden had a good answer there. The only real blow I think Ryan clearly landed was on the Bengazi embassy and there, Biden was able to point out that Romney had screwed up too and Biden's response about tracking down the perpetrators was very credible, given Obama's record at taking out terrorists and pirates.

thanks for this

Do you think Bidens giggling helped his cause?


So the left says Biden "mopped the floor" w/ Ryan (Joan Walsh), and the right says Biden embarrassed himself (GOP) and Ryan won. The insta-polls and focus group results I've seen suggest either a tie or Ryan win, with Biden coming off as way past his prime. Does that jive with what you're seeing?

You've got evidence I haven't seen, and you haven't seen the evidence I have. What focus groups? What polls? Perhaps because he and I are the same age (as is Davey Johnson, I'd like to point out), I don't think Biden is past his prime just yet. 

I noticed in the first debate that Romney injected anecdotes about various "real people" he has met, all in swing states, with full names and home towns, and Obama failed to do so. But I think the same pattern happened here: Biden did much better in the debate, but like Obama, he didn't insert random stories about "real people" to "put a face on the issue," as I'm sure the consultants say. Is it possible that this stale, tiresome, ultra-hackneyed tactic may be on the way out? If so, to answer your question of "who won?" -- we all did. I could live a long time happily without hearing another one of those.

Wouldn't it be nice if you were right? I dare not predict it.

Ryan seemed unable to get it through his head that the US was shifting the burden to the Afghans. He kept coming back to what he seemed to regard as a dangerous reduction in the number of U.S. troops sent on hazardous missions, when that's the whole idea. Agree? Disagree?

Paul Ryan hasmore experience of foreign affairs than Sarah Palin did, but he is hardly an expert. I saw his performance on these questions two contradictory ways last night. On one hand, he mastered a complicated briefing book, has learned the names of Afghan provinces, and wasn't afraid to dive in to the subject matter. He looked plausible.

On the other hand, I cringed at his effort to turn everything that has happened in recent times in the endlessly complicated and confusing Middle East into support for the proposition that Obama's foreign policy is a total failure and is now "unraveling." Compared to Bush-Cheney? Or what? I think that's wrong.

Fact checkers should be present at the debates, and be able to 'correct' each candidate, as well as ask them questions when information is wrong. This would put an end to all the lies and misleading the public. Take it a step further, have a fact checker moderating the debates.

I urge you to reconsider this idea.  Who would choose the fact checker(s)?  What credentials would they require? How woud we know that they are both omnicient and utterly fair-minded?  Some facts are easily checked, but many "factual" assertions are ambiguous. Your urge for a simple way to clarify complicated political debate is I guess understandable, but it isn't going to happen. It can't. 

Ryan was obviously asked to tell the story of Romney giving a lot of money to a family that was in a tragic car crash, even though they were "of another faith" as he put it. So it's not his fault. But I thought it was a bad choice. It obviously hit Biden painfully on a personal level (one of the very few times he stopped smiling, when that story was told), politically, it let him reference his own similar tragedy, and finally, Romney didn't come across as much more than an open checkbook. The 14-year-old terminal patient, much talked about on the trail, is a much more intimate story of Romney doing good; this just says he has lots of money. Bad story choice, don't you think?

I leave it to you to decide if it was a good or a bad choice, but it sure was a phony moment.

Gas prices are rising, books are being published about the End of Growth predicated on energy shortages, yet next to nothing was said about energy. Is this too difficult of a topic because we're so auto/gas dependent?

I think you're misreading what's happening. In fact we are in the midst of a huge growth of energy supplies, including in our own country.  But this is a subject for another day. I highly recommend Daniel Yergin's new book on this subject if you would like to really get educated: The Quest. 

All I've heard recently is that Obama was too timid, or Biden was too forceful. Is this all people care about? Is what you look like and how you sound more important that what you say?

Thanks. You know, it's a helluva lot easier to pass judgement on style than it is to wrestle with substance...

If you are Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, what was your take away last night? Are you still glad you have the running mate that you do?

Excellent question, and of course I don't know the answers, but I'd bet serious money (but not $10,000) that both were pleased.  Obama had to like Biden's feisty defense of his presidency, and his put-downs of the opposition. Romney I suspect was delighted to see Ryan following him to "the center" by changing policy, for example, on taxes and defense spending from what they were saying not so long ago. And Ryan was, I thought, likeable and reasonable in manner. 

I know many people who have cast early ballots. So the sturm und drang of the debates no longer disturbs them, though they do watch to see the ebb and flow of information vs. entertainment.

Thanks. Not only are you dead right, but as we know from the polls for a year, the overwhelming majority of Americans have known for months how they will vote in November. I am personally very dubious of the big "swings" some polls are finding in recent days, when we've known for months how few voters were ready to change their minds. 

I actually thought this was probably Ryan's weakest moment, because of his support for cuts to the budget for protection to such installations, as well as the fact that that many Marines would NEVER have been sent to Benghazi.

Not sure where your quotation is from? But I do know that the U.S. has no embasy in Benghazi-- the embassy, as usual, is in the capital, Tripoli. 

I wish the people in the media would stop calling Mr. Romney, Governor Romney. He lost that title when he left office.

For a popular democracy founded by anti-royalists, we are awfully fond of titles in this country. In Washington two nights ago I heard Jim Blanchard, a former governor of Michigan (D), referred to as "governor," a title he hasn't held since the late '70s or early '80s as I recall. I'm with you in principle, but principles don't mean much in our culture.

For all of the people who thought Joe Biden was "rude" or "unprofessional" and should have given Paul Ryan more deference (and I thought that Paul Ryan looked like a smirky Eddie Munster), I would like to ask whether they thought the same of Romney's "performance" last week in his debate with President Obama. If the Republicans do it, it's okay, but not if the Democrats do it (reminds me of how deficits don't matter when the Republicans run things)? We are not electing boy scout den mothers here (although they can be pretty tough). We're electing a set of people who will lead and *govern* (yes, the dreaded "g" word) this country, in a grownup and volatile world. Save your politeness for afternoon tea, please. I want a leader who actually wants to govern this country, not someone who treats the position as an entitlement. We've had quite enough of that, thank you very much.


"ROBERT G. KAISER : Wish you had been the moderator so we could have seen you stop the vice president from being sarcastic and rude. What would be your method, I wonder?" How about this: "Mr. Vice President, I ask you to stop interrupting Mr. Ryan when he is answering a question and to refrain from laughing." If nothing else, Raddatz should have at least tried to enforce basic rules of civility.

Good answer. Thanks.

I'm amused by all the comments about Biden's mannerisms during the debate. People suggested that they were condescending or confident (I suppose it depends upon which side of the aisle you are) but I did not find his gestures condescending. Here's what it did: 1. Instead of Ryan being able to get away with saying lies and continue this safe stance by not answering questions directly or specifically, Biden is giving the greater audience visual cues that this is what is going on. If you're not up on policy making, politics, it could be easy enough to assume that Paul Ryan was speaking the truth. Biden's reactions were part of a strategy,I assume, to disrupt the flow of bullet points that Ryan was trying to make and also not letting Ryan get away with his untruths or flat-out lies. If Ryan hadn't made so many errors or lies, then Biden wouldn't have had to correct him so often. Simple as that, really. I thought Biden won on substance, humor, firm delivery of points. I will give credit to Ryan for his composure doing the debate.


Martha Raddatz and the viewing public. An actual debate; who knew...

Thanks for this.

I was glad to see a good number of questions devoted to this. Although it may be better to primarily focus on Foreign Policy in VP debates because the guy will really only matter if the president is incapacitated and then the stability of the world situation is probably the first priority and we would like to know how worldly the VP is coming into the job. Would have liked to see a little more expansive questions in this area - such as about Africa and South America. Probably need a whole debate to cover topics in this much depth though. Hopefully the Presidential Foreign Policy debate will not just focus on the topics du jour.

and this

As a retired Foreign Service Officer, I was heartened to see Ryan and others in Congress so interested in the safety of our personnel working overseas (presumably not just ambassadors). While he criticized Obama's decription of the attackers, he didn't seem to be clear on what he and Ronmney would have done differently. Spent more money on upgrading security for buildings and personnel? Keeping diplomats within the walls? Not that much seems to have changed since 1983, during the Reagan Adaministration, when the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed. More than 3 people died then.

an this, too.

The transfer of political power is never pretty, and I think it's a healthy acrimony we see on TV. Better to let it out than underground it.

This will be the last one for today. It is one of several I've received on a similar theme. And I agree with it. Rough-and-tumble debate seems to alarm some people  more than I think it should.  

So, luckily for those of us who like it, we can look forward to two more rounds, the first on Tuesday night. I'll be back after that one too. Please join us then. 

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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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