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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Vice Presidential Debate: How Joe Biden Won On Domestic Policy

Alex Blow |
October 13, 2012 | 8:43 a.m. PDT


Joe Biden and Paul Ryan sat down to debate Thursday night. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
Joe Biden and Paul Ryan sat down to debate Thursday night. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
I believe we can safely say that Biden dominated the domestic policy side of the vice presidential debate Thursday night.

The discussion of domestic policy boiled down to three main topics: unemployment, healthcare (specifically, Medicare) and taxes. While Ryan was always quick with his responses, Biden carefully articulated his position on each of these issues while simultaneously poking holes in his opponent’s responses.



A key feature of the unemployment discussion was the contrast between the way Biden and Ryan each described the events of 2008. The financial collapse of 2008 was no mere “tough situation,” as Ryan stated. One by one, the world’s largest banks began to drop like dominoes. Without the immediate action the administration took to stop the collapse, the U.S. would have reproduced the Great Depression on steroids. Biden, using statistics to emphasize the severity of the crisis, correctly stated that “the economy was in a free fall.” This difference in description indicates the candidates' distint views on the U.S.'s progress in recovering from the collapse as well.

Biden argued that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or the stimulus, was what saved us from a deeper cut to our economic system. Many public and private institutions agree with him. However, Ryan obviously does not. In fact, Ryan said that the stimulus added to the problem. He reduced the value of the stimulus to borrowing $831 billion and investing it in “special interest groups,” and tried to label ARRA as cronyism.

The truth is that a majority of the stimulus funds provided tax relief to low- and middle-income Americans, social safety net programs for those hit hardest by the recession and grants or loans for certain infrastructure projects. I'm sure Ryan was simply mistaken when he said that the stimulus simply handed “90 billion in green pork to campaign contributors and special interest groups.”

Ryan had to be lying when he said that things were not moving in the right direction. Ryan claimed that the unemployment rate in Scranton, Biden’s home town, represented the state of the entire country with regard to unemployment. Anyone who has looked at the unemployment numbers over the last four years would understand the U.S. is moving forward, and although these numbers are exactly what Biden pointed to, Ryan dismissed them.

The difference in the two candidates' arguments, once again, relates to the difference in the two candidates' descriptions of the financial collapse. If you are someone who is well aware of how worse things would have continued to get had the administration not taken the action it did, the stimulus played a key role in recovery. If you are someone, like Ryan, who simply compares dates without acknowledging the long-term consequences of inaction, the stimulus appears to have been unnecessary spending.

Biden was able to successfully defend his administration’s action, whereas Ryan could not even specifically describe the actions his administration would take if elected. Ryan laid out the same five point plan we heard in the first debate: become energy independent, help people find jobs, get the deficit under control, make trade work and champion small business. Not one specific policy was outlined; Biden retaliated with: “Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility."

Biden’s defense of the stimulus was therefore sufficient, because since his opponent put forward no specific policies of his own for Biden to attack, Biden's offense was not even necessary.


Healthcare was an issue Ryan seemed to feel more comfortable discussing. One reason may be that he actually has a plan for at least one part of our healthcare system: Medicare. After accurately remarking that his plan only reforms Medicare for those 54 years of age or younger, Ryan immediately went on the offensive. He claimed that Obamacare cuts $716 billion from Medicare and that it installs a board of 15 unelected individuals who can determine which benefits are given to whom.

Now is a moment to stop and thank God for fact checkers. Both of these statements are misleading, and Biden was quick to refute them. He pointed out that the “cuts” to Medicare are not actually cuts to benefits, but to insurance companies and hospitals. In other words, they change the way in which future spending will proceed; they don't just yank $716 billion out of the Medicare piggy bank.

Although Biden was effective in defending Obamacare, he was guilty of the same misrepresentation of the Ryan Plan. In order to deal a bigger blow to the changes Ryan and Romney would make to Medicare, Biden referred back to Ryan’s original plan rather than his current one; Ryan's original plan did not give those under 54 the option to stay on traditional Medicare. This older plan would have increased costs to seniors by $6,400. However, it is the old plan, and to criticize the new with the old is unfair.


When it comes to the issue of taxes, however, the Ryan/Romney proposal is once again lacking in specifics. Ryan mentioned that tax rates would be lowered and the decrease in revenue would be offset by closing loopholes and deductions, but even after the moderator specifically asked Ryan to provide the specifics, he refused to do so - paving the way for Biden to successfully break down the plan. He stated, “the only way you can find $5 trillion in loopholes is to cut [deductions for the middle class].” Even though Ryan has said he would not do such a thing, the math simply doesn’t work without it; and, until he provides the specifics, what else can we assume will be done to offset the tax cuts?

Biden further attacked the Republican plan, repeatedly remarking that the Republicans are holding the extension of the middle class tax cuts hostage until the high income tax cuts are extended as well. The Obama administration extended all aspects of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, and, as Biden emphasized, another full extension is unsustainable. In fact, he phrased the administration’s plan in the most appropriate way: letting those high income tax cuts, which should have expired in 2010, finally expire.

Ryan tried to counter this point by saying that “eight out of 10 businesses, they file their taxes as individuals, not as corporations,” concluding, therefore, that letting the tax cuts expire would hurt small businesses. However, Biden successfully dismissed this claim by mentioning the fact that “97 percent of the small businesses in America…make less than $250,000." Although neither candidate successfully defined "small business," this debate revealed the differences between the two candidates in terms of what constitutes a small business in their minds.


The vice presidential debate put both candidates in unique positions. While Obama was unable to aggressively respond to Romney’s arguments in the first presidential debate, perhaps due to his need to preserve his image, Biden was more than able to respond to Ryan's arguments. Ryan, lacking the specifics of his campaign’s plan for the economy, is used to being able to avoid direct questions and criticisms in interviews and campaign speeches. However, with both the opposition, Biden, and demand for specifics sitting right in front of him, Ryan witnessed the defeat of many of his arguments. Consequently, the Obama campaign came out on top this time.

Hopefully Biden's performance has given Obama some extra momentum to work with during the second presidential debate Tuesday.


Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of the Vice Presidential debate here.

Reach Contributor Alex Blow here.



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