Unlike his Republican National Convention speech, last night Paul Ryan had to face tough questions, and proved he was not ready for prime time. (More)

Paul Ryan’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Debut

Last night Vice President Joe Biden exposed the emptiness beneath Paul Ryan’s Beltway reputation. From calling Ryan’s criticisms about Libya “malarkey” and following up with a detailed and factual explanation, to invoking the Irish euphemism “a bunch of stuff” (he couldn’t say s**t on television) in response to Ryan’s claim that President Obama snubbed Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to offering the most devastating rebuttal yet to Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comment, again and again the vice president came back to a central question: “Who do you trust?”

On both policy and politics, Vice President Biden gave a virtuoso performance. Although a Republican-heavy CNN/ORC poll showed a narrow Ryan win, a CBS News poll of undecided voters found Vice President Biden a clear winner, and a self-selected Washington Post poll favored Vice President Biden by 65-35. The Post‘s Chris Cillizza said the vice president left Ryan “largely a bystander.”

The Paul Ryan myth …

When Mitt Romney tapped Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, the young congressman had an enviable Beltway media reputation. He was routinely hailed as “courageous,” albeit for the ‘courage’ to pamper the privileged and scold the needy. Yesterday the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein offered this assessment:

First, he’s smart. This shouldn’t need to be said, but some liberals seem to think Ryan’s intelligence is some kind of facade. In this view, he’s really a robotic Randian who does little more than spout talking points. His reputation for intelligence is simply the soft bigotry of Washington’s low expectations for politicians.

Vice President Biden’s team would be unwise to buy into this comforting line of thought. Ryan’s smart, and he’s quick, and he’s heard most of what you have to say before.

Klein then buffered that praise – or perhaps praised himself – noting that Ryan often came up short when pressed on details by someone who actually knows policy details:

That’s not to say he always has good answers for them. I remember walking away from our first debate somewhat confused. The deeper we drilled into the regulations in Ryan’s plan, the more they sounded like the very plans he was arguing against.
[…]
In effect, Ryan’s plan and Obama’s plan would regulate insurance products sold through the exchanges in pretty much the same way. But Ryan didn’t want to say that. So he basically offered a lot of convincing sounding words on the topic. If you parse his response, it’s not terribly convincing. But you really need to know the issues to parse his response.

In short, Klein believed Ryan was knowledgeable and articulate enough to convince a general audience, and only a better-informed policy wonk would recognize and could expose the emptiness beneath what Klein called Ryan’s “word salad.”

… shattered

Instead Ryan looked out of his depth on foreign policy. He was forced to admit he privately requested stimulus projects while publicly denouncing the stimulus bill. He punted the details of Mitt Romney’s tax plan to a future Congress:

RADDATZ: Well, let’s talk about this 20 percent. You have refused – and, again – to offer specifics on how you pay for that 20 percent across-the-board tax cut. Do you actually have the specifics? Or are you still working on it, and that’s why you won’t tell voters?

RYAN: Different than this administration, we actually want to have big bipartisan agreements. You see, I understand the…

RADDATZ: Do you have the specifics? Do you have the…

(CROSSTALK) BIDEN: That would – that would be a first for the Republican Congress.

RADDATZ: Do you know exactly what you’re doing?

RYAN: Look – look at what Mitt Romney – look at what Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill did. They worked together out of a framework to lower tax rates and broaden the base, and they worked together to fix that.

What we’re saying is, here’s our framework. Lower tax rates 20 percent. We raised about $1.2 trillion through income taxes. We forego about $1.1 trillion in loopholes and deductions. And so what we’re saying is, deny those loopholes and deductions to higher-income taxpayers so that more of their income is taxed, which has a broader base of taxation…

BIDEN: Can I translate?

RYAN: … so we can lower tax rates across the board. Now, here’s why I’m saying this. What we’re saying is, here’s the framework…

BIDEN: I hope I’m going to get time to respond to this.

RADDATZ: You’ll get time.

RYAN: We want to work with Congress – we want to work with the Congress on how best to achieve this. That means successful. Look…

RADDATZ: No specifics, again.

Ryan even jumped into the political tarpit of advocating for privatized Social Security. His performance was so bad that Republicans were left sputtering about moderator Martha Raddatz – who did an excellent job of directing and limiting the discussion – and complaining Vice President Biden laughed and smiled too often.

All of that said, grassroots Democratic activists should not read too much into last night’s debate. As the New York Times‘ Nate Silver notes, vice presidential debates rarely shift the dynamics of a race. While the debate likely boosted Democrats’ morale – and that alone was worthwhile – we’ll still have to translate that into the phone calls, canvassing, and other GOTV work that win elections.

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Happy Thursday!