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 Joe 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.
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 Barack Obama and some abstract alternative but a choice between Obama and the dimly regarded Republican-led House.
Many will criticize Biden’s antics on the debate stage. But all of the scoffing and incredulity was to an end, and one that Obama would be wise to emulate: It indicated outrage. When Ryan tried to blame Obama for the automatic defense spending cuts, Biden pointed out that Ryan had praised the agreement.
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.’”
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’S email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.