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DANVILLE, Ky. – Vice President Biden and Republican rival Paul D. Ryan squabbled over the economy, taxes, Medicare and more Thursday night in a contentious, interruption-filled debate.
“That is a bunch of malarkey,” the vice president retorted after a particularly tough Ryan attack on the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
“I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don’t interrupt each other,” Ryan said later, referring to Democratic pressure on Biden to make up for President Obama’s listless performance in last week’s debate with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
There was nothing listless in this debate as the 69-year-old Biden sat next to the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman on a stage at Centre College.
Ninety minutes after the initial disagreement over foreign policy, the two men clashed sharply over steps to reduce federal deficits.
“The president likes to say he has a plan,” Ryan said, but, in fact, “he gave a speech” and never backed it up with details.
Biden conceded that Republicans have a plan, but he said that if it were enacted, it would have “eviscerated all the things the middle class care about.”
The debate took place a little more than a week after Obama and Romney met in the first of their three debates – an encounter that has fueled a Republican comeback in public opinion polls.
With Democrats eager for Biden to show the spark the president lacked, he did so.
Unprompted, he brought up the video in which Romney had said that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, view themselves as victims and do not take responsibility for their own lives.
“It’s about time they take responsibility,” instead of signing pledges to avoid raising taxes, Biden said, referring to Romney, Ryan and the Republicans.
The disagreements started immediately after the smiles and handshakes of the opening.
Ryan said U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens had been denied sufficient security by administration officials. Stevens died in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11.
“Not a single thing he said is accurate,” Biden shot back.
Ryan quickly turned to dreary economic statistics – 23 million are struggling to work, he said, and 15 percent of the country is living in poverty. “This is not what a real recovery looks like,” he said.
Medicare was a flash point, as well. Ryan said Obama’s health care plan had diverted $716 billion from the program for senior citizens and created a new board that could deny care to patients who need it.
Democrats “haven’t put a credible solution on the table,” Ryan said. “They’ll tell you about vouchers. They’ll say all these things to try to scare people.”
Biden said Ryan had authored not one but two proposals in which senior citizens would be given government payments that might not cover all their care. Otherwise, he said, the Romney-Ryan approach wouldn’t achieve the savings they claimed.
Unlike Obama, Biden had no qualms about launching a personal attack on Romney.
After Ryan argued that Romney’s plan would pay for reduced tax rates by eliminating tax loopholes for the wealthy, Biden noted that on a recent interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Romney defended the 14 percent tax rate he pays on his $20 million income as fair, even though it’s a lower rate than some lower-income taxpayers pay.
“You think these guys are going to go out there and cut those loopholes?” Biden asked, addressing the national TV audience.
Across 90 minutes, the two men agreed once.
That was when Ryan, referring to the war in Afghanistan, said the calendar for U.S. withdrawal was the same each year. Biden agreed, but not to the underlying point, which was that it was a mistake for Obama to have announced a date for the withdrawal of the remainder of the U.S. combat troops.
The fiercest clash over foreign policy came in the debate’s opening moments, when Ryan cited events across the Middle East as well as Stevens’ death in Libya as evidence that the administration’s foreign policy was unraveling. The Republican also said the administration had failed to give Stevens the same level of protection the U.S. ambassador in Paris receives.
Biden responded that the budget plan that Ryan authored as chairman of the House Budget Committee had cut the administration’s funding request for diplomatic security by $300 million.
On the nation’s economy, both men were asked directly when his side could reduce unemployment to 6 percent from the current 7.8 percent. Both men sidestepped.
Biden repeated the president’s contention that the nation is moving in the right direction, while Ryan stated the Republican view that economic struggle persists even though Democrats had control of both houses of Congress during the first two years of Obama’s term.
“Where are the 5 million green jobs” we were told would be created? Ryan asked Biden.
For Biden, Thursday night’s debate was his first since the 2008 campaign, when he shared a stage with Sarah Palin, who was Arizona Sen. John McCain’s running mate.
Ryan spars frequently with Democrats during debates on legislation on the House floor and in the House Budget Committee, which he serves as chairman, but not in a one-on-one encounter covering 90 minutes and a virtually unlimited range of topics.
Despite their differences, the two shared a common objective, to advance the cause of their tickets and avoid a gaffe that might forever seal their place in the history of debates.
Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate cheered conservatives in the House, many of whom regard him as their leader on budget and economic issues. The seven-term lawmaker has authored a pair of deficit-reducing budgets in the last two years that call for spending cuts and changes in Medicare, blueprints that Republicans passed through the House and that Obama and his allies in Congress frequently criticize. He also champions a no-tax-increase approach to economic policy.
As a senator from Delaware before becoming vice president, Biden was chairman of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, and he has long experience in national security issues. More recently, he was Obama’s point man in arduous, ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with Republicans on steps to cut the deficit.
Both Ryan and Biden held extensive rehearsals, with stand-ins for their opponents.
Biden turned to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who is well-versed in Ryan’s policy views from his tenure as ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. Ryan’s foil in rehearsal was former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson
Martha Raddatz of ABC News was moderator.
One big contrast between Biden and Ryan was age. Ryan was not quite 3 when Biden was first elected to the Senate in November 1972 at 29. The age gap is the biggest between two vice presidential nominees since 1904.