US Vice President Joe Biden and the man who wants to succeed him, Republican Paul Ryan, clashed in a feisty debate over foreign and economic policy as Biden sought to make up for US President Barack Obama’s lackluster performance last week against his opponent, Mitt Romney.
The two went head-to-head over the Obama administration’s policy in Libya and Iran in the opening minutes of a contentious vice presidential debate on Thursday, with Ryan citing it as evidence that it is weakening the US’ standing in the world.
It only grew more heated as the candidates sniped at each other over Afghanistan and Syria, as well as the slow economy, taxes and the government health care program for the elderly. It was a combative performance on both sides, with both men repeatedly interrupting each other — and the moderator too.
The stakes are not generally this high in vice presidential debates, but Biden was under pressure to restore energy to the Democratic campaign less than a month before the Nov. 6 election.
Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin who at 42 is a generation younger than his opponent, fought to hold on to the Republicans’ sudden rise in the polls that followed the Obama-Romney debate.
Thursday night’s debate at a small college in Kentucky was everything that the presidential one was not: substantive and contentious.
The two went at each other seconds into the debate, with Ryan saying the Sept. 11 death of the US ambassador in an attack at the US Consulate in Benghazi was evidence that the administration’s foreign policy was unraveling.
Biden reminded viewers that Obama was willing to chase the Sept. 11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to the end of the earth, and he quoted Romney as essentially saying he would not have done the same.
On Iran, Biden defended current sanctions as the toughest ones in history, while Ryan said Obama has allowed Iran to get four years closer to building a nuclear weapon, and accused the White House of ignoring the warnings of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not standing up for its chief ally.
The candidates disagreed on Syria, with Ryan accusing the administration of inaction and saying it was outsourcing foreign policy to the UN.
Biden said the last thing the US needs is another ground war in the Middle East, and that if Ryan and Romney want to send troops to Syria they should just say so.
Ryan agreed with Obama’s plan to transition out of Afghanistan by 2014, but said that publicizing the date for withdrawal amounted to exposing weakness.
The two also argued over the poor state of the US economy, with Biden saying Republicans must take responsibility for obstructing the economic recovery.
The slow economy has been the dominant issue of the US election, and Ryan cited high unemployment numbers as evidence that there is no recovery under way.
Last week’s presidential debate erased Obama’s advantage and boosted Romney nationally and — more importantly — in such battleground states as Ohio. That is especially relevant as the US president is not elected by a nationwide popular vote, but in a series of state-by-state contests.