Washington — The sole vice presidential debate for the 2012 presidential election covered a surprising array of U.S. foreign policy topics, despite the fact that most Americans usually base their votes on domestic issues, particularly the U.S. economy.
The October 11 debate between Vice President Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was held in Danville, Kentucky, and was watched by at least 28.4 million viewers on the four major U.S. broadcast television networks.
Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News warned both candidates at the very beginning of the debate that “I'm going to move back and forth between foreign and domestic [topics], since that is what a vice president or president would have to do.”
Her first question focused on the violence in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on September 11. The 90-minute debate also generated in-depth discussions between Ryan and Biden over how the Obama administration and a prospective Mitt Romney presidency would either change or maintain current U.S. policies toward Iran, Afghanistan and the Arab Spring.
Both said they wanted U.S. and other international forces to leave Afghanistan in 2014, though Biden was more insistent that the withdrawal would occur as scheduled. Ryan argued that the Obama administration has not done enough to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but Biden said the international community has imposed the strictest sanctions in history as a deterrence against Iran's nuclear activities and the Iranian regime has not yet developed a weapon that could deliver a nuclear payload.
In their post-debate coverage, many U.S. political pundits compared Biden’s aggressive style with Ryan’s more demure approach, and both Democrats and Republicans have claimed that their side won the exchange.
Historically, most U.S. vice presidential debates have not commanded as much interest from the American public as have those of their presidential counterparts. On Election Day, voters are voting for a president, rather than a vice president. The vice presidential nominee and presidential nominee run together as a "ticket."
But many Americans tuned in to the debate to see if Biden could re-energize President Obama’s supporters and attract undecided voters after most pundits assessed that Romney had given a stronger performance than the president during their first debate on October 3.
Seated side by side, Biden and Ryan were an interesting contrast. Both are practicing Roman Catholics and grew up in small towns. They also both began their Washington political careers when they were in their late 20s — a relatively young age for most U.S. politicians.
But the 42-year-old Ryan was only 2 years old in 1972 when Biden first won a seat in the U.S. Senate to represent the state of Delaware. Along with their nearly 28-year age difference, Biden’s assertive but informal speaking style contrasted with Ryan’s disciplined debating approach.
Biden served as senator from Delaware until he became vice president in 2009. During his legislative career, he was chairman or ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for 17 years and was widely recognized for his work on criminal justice issues, including the landmark 1994 Crime Bill and the Violence Against Women Act. As chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee beginning in 1997, Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy on issues and legislation related to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, post–Cold War Europe, the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Ryan was elected in 1998 to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Wisconsin. In 2007, he became the ranking member of the House Budget Committee and then its chairman in 2011 after the Republican Party took control of the House. As committee chairman, Ryan has been seen as the key figure behind Republican-proposed federal budgets aimed at reducing domestic federal spending.
The vice presidency was originally created by the U.S. Constitution to ensure that an unplanned presidential succession would occur smoothly and to break tie votes in the U.S. Senate. However, the duties of the vice president have changed in recent years, and the last three vice presidents have been able to turn the office into an independent power center. Biden currently serves as Obama’s chief counselor, while his predecessor, Dick Cheney, is famous for his influence over U.S. national security policies during the George W. Bush administration. Al Gore was able to make his mark in the Bill Clinton administration through his initiatives to "reinvent" the federal government.