By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — In the hours before Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, word leaked that the Romney-Ryan campaign had instructed moderator Martha Raddatz to address Paul Ryan as “Mister” rather than “Congressman.”
To her credit, Raddatz ignored such instructions and referred to the Republican vice presidential nominee by his more relevant title. Not that it mattered anyway: Vice President Biden was not about to let people forget that Ryan, and by extension Mitt Romney, is inextricably bound to the unpopular House Republican leadership.
On issue after issue — Libya, Iran, taxes, debt, Medicare, Social Security — Biden kept turning the discussion toward actions Ryan and his colleagues took in Congress, at one point mocking Ryan for suggesting he could work across the aisle to forge a tax deal. “Seven percent rating? Come on,” Biden needled.
Perhaps Biden’s most effective moment was his response to Ryan’s condemnation of the economic stimulus.
“I love my friend here,” Biden said, noting that Ryan “sent me two letters saying, ‘By the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?’”
“You did ask for stimulus money?” Raddatz asked.
“On two occasions, we — we — we advocated for constituents who were applying for grants.”
“I love that,” Biden pressed, going on to quote from Ryan’s letter saying the stimulus would “create growth and jobs.”
The emphasis on congressional Republicans was key to Biden’s strong performance, because it provided a more favorable way for Democrats to frame the campaign: not as a choice between President Obama and some abstract alternative but a choice between Obama and the dimly regarded Republican-led House, which would be in a dominant position under a President Romney. Romney’s views may be all over the lot, but the positions of Republicans on Capitol Hill are clear and stark.
Many will criticize Biden’s antics on the debate stage: loud guffaws, grimaces, raising his arms and looking heavenward, interjecting with “Oh, God,” and “This is amazing.” But all of the scoffing and incredulity was to an end, and one that Obama would be wise to emulate: It indicated outrage. Biden’s incredulous grins and many putdowns (“bunch of malarkey,” “bunch of stuff,” “oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy,” “notice, he never answers the question”) seemed to rattle Ryan, as measured by his copious water consumption. At one point, Ryan flatly denied a $2 trillion increase in military spending that Romney has touted.
Biden’s theatrics, if overdone, were clearly deliberate, because he dropped them during the closing minutes of the debate and adopted a softer voice. “You probably detected my frustration with their attitude about the American people,” Biden said, reprising Romney’s “47 percent” remark.
For an Obama campaign upended by Romney’s sudden move to the middle, the vice president’s success in directing his outrage less at the gelatinous Romney than at the hard-and-fast positions of congressional Republicans would seem to provide an antidote.
When Ryan tried to blame Obama for the automatic defense spending cuts, Biden pointed out that Ryan had praised the agreement. When Ryan criticized inadequate security in last month’s attack on diplomats in Libya, Biden retorted: “The congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for.”
On Iran sanctions: “Imagine had we let the Republican Congress work out the sanctions. You think there’s any possibility the entire world would have joined us?”
On taxes: “Instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class, ‘We’re going to level the playing field.’”
On homeowners: “Get out of the way and let us allow 14 million people who are struggling to stay in their homes because their mortgages are upside down.”
Biden, looking into the camera, warned viewers that a Ryan proposal would have increased Medicare recipients’ costs by $6,400. Ryan was compelled to assure viewers that his earlier push for partial privatization of Social Security is “not what Mitt Romney’s proposing.”
An indignant Biden accused Ryan and his fellow Republicans in Congress of tanking the economy. “They talk about this Great Recession as if it fell out of the sky, like, ‘Oh my goodness, where did it come from?’” he said, then pointed at Ryan. “It came from this man, voting to put two wars on a credit card [and] … a trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy.”
Raddatz turned to the challenger for a response. “Congressman Ryan?”
After Biden’s barrage, the honorific sounded like an epithet.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.