Vice President Joe Biden was stronger in Thursday's debate than challenger Rep. Paul Ryan, but the matchup didn't produce the kind of clear winner that the debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney did. Joe Biden was Joe Biden — garrulous and heartfelt, yet unabashedly aggressive in defending the administration and attacking the opposition. Paul Ryan was Paul Ryan — wonkish, earnest and controlled. Mr. Biden largely dominated the exchange in a way that will appeal to some and may turn off others. In all, the event is unlikely to upend the race the way Mr. Romney's convincing performance and Mr. Obama's abysmal one did a week before. People don't vote for vice presidents.
But what Mr. Biden did that may have a longer-lasting effect is to underscore the clarity of the Obama campaign's positions and the vagueness of Mr. Romney's. On big issues like taxes, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, Mr. Biden gave succinct, direct and pointed answers, while Mr. Ryan directly avoided specifics. Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC news played a constructive role in sharpening the focus on the weak spots in the candidates' presentations, and Mr. Ryan was unable (or unwilling) to respond.
Mr. Ryan repeated his running mate's insistence that his proposed 20 percent, across-the-board reduction in income tax rates would not hurt the middle class and would not add to the deficit. He said that was possible through the elimination or limitation of tax loopholes and deductions. But under pointed questioning from both Ms. Raddatz and Mr. Biden, Mr. Ryan could not offer a single specific example of a loophole a Romney administration would close or a deduction it would limit. Mr. Ryan, a reputed budget wizard, had no response whatsoever when asked how he would accomplish all this while simultaneously increasing military spending. Mr. Biden didn't completely answer the question of how a second Obama administration would solve the deficit, but he was very clear about tax policy: Maintain lower taxes for the middle class, raise them on top earners.
On Afghanistan, Mr. Biden was similarly direct: American troops will be out in 2014. Mr. Ryan tried desperately to find a way to fault the administration for winding down a war that the American public wants to end without actually suggesting we continue it indefinitely. Mr. Ryan tried to blame the administration for not being tough enough in the effort to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but he failed to say what he would do differently. Likewise, he said America should be doing more to help the rebels in Syria, but he didn't say what, and when pressed, he agreed that the Obama administration was right to consider the use of chemical weapons to be the red line that would trigger limited, direct American military involvement.
On other domestic issues, Mr. Biden was effective in raising doubts about how committed the Romney-Ryan team is to maintaining the programs that millions of Americans rely on. He questioned why the American people should trust Messrs. Romney and Ryan based on their previous support for a proposal that, no matter what they call it, would turn Medicare into a voucher program whose value would not keep up with the price of health insurance, or Mr. Ryan's advocacy for privatizing Social Security. He didn't even get into what the pair's proposed cuts would do to Medicare, a program that benefits not only the poor but also the disabled and seniors in nursing homes.
Mr. Ryan's go-to defense when he had nothing else to offer was to quote a line from then-Sen. Barack Obama from 2008 in which he said that candidates attack when they can't defend their own records. But what he failed to appreciate is that this election is not just a referendum on Mr. Obama's record. It is a choice between two competing visions for America. Mr. Biden may not have done enough to tell the public how the policies and priorities of a second Obama administration would differ from the first. But he did plenty to force the Romney campaign to contend with the details of an agenda it would rather the American public not notice.
All this sets the stage for this week's town hall-style debate between Messrs. Obama and Romney. If the president can match Mr. Biden's engagement and intensity, Mr. Romney could be in for a much tougher match on Tuesday.