CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, President Obama honored late labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez earlier this week but a new book questions whether the full story of his life and legacy isn't perhaps more complicated. That's in a moment.
But now we turn to last night's first and only vice presidential debate of this general election season. Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan went head to head. They touched on a number of topics from America's economy to abortion to foreign policy in the Middle East. Here's just a taste of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
PAUL RYAN: Our adversaries are much more willing to test us. They're more brazen in their attacks and our allies are less willing to trust us.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Will all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey.
MARTHA RADDATZ: And why is that so?
BIDEN: Because not a single thing he said is accurate.
HEADLEE: Here to help us understand the substance and style of both vice presidential candidates, Paul Orzulak. He was speechwriter for President Clinton and served for Al Gore during the 2000 election. Also spent time with Vice President Biden, helping him prepare for the debate. And also with us, Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. They both join me here in our Washington studio. Welcome back to the program.
PAUL ORZULAK: Thanks, Celeste.
MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.
HEADLEE: And, Paul, let's begin with you because you helped coach Vice President Biden for these debates. So how do you think he did?
ORZULAK: I think he did great. He had a higher burden on him than the congressman did because, you know, we've had not the greatest week since the president's debate with Mitt Romney. It was pretty clear - I think it was universally agreed the governor won last week. So I think Joe Biden's task in the debate was to reenergize Democrats, to get them excited about turning out.
And, as a secondary goal, you know, expose the Romney/Ryan plan and raise doubts again that were sort of put aside in last week's debate. And I thought he was very effective in doing that. He was strong and...
HEADLEE: Not too much laughing?
ORZULAK: Well, I know that a lot of people probably have different points of view on that. I think that when you're talking about style points at the end of the debate, if you're trying to spin it on style points, then you probably on substance know that you didn't do very well. But, look. I mean, the broader picture is that this was a great debate for the country. This was a real debate.
I feel like they mixed it up and really had different point of views.
ORZULAK: There was a very clear contrast between the two.
HEADLEE: That's for sure.
ORZULAK: I feel like there are a lot of issues now teed up for next week. From the Democratic perspective it's how do you pay for this? I don't think the congressman who is the best in their party at explaining it didn't really have an answer for it.
HEADLEE: OK. Well, let me take that to Mary Kate, then. OK.
HEADLEE: Congressman Ryan, obviously, was hoping to build on the momentum that Governor Romney had...
HEADLEE: ...from the presidential debate. Did that happen?
CARY: Yeah. I think he did. The Democrats could not afford to go two and oh. Since the last debate, the presidential debate, the GOP has swung in 11 swing states, closed the gap. Polls were moving. The momentum had shifted to the Romney campaign. And I think the Ryan performance last night did nothing to hurt that momentum.
What was going into it for Biden was that Biden was upside down on his likeability ratings. And what Biden's been doing the last few months is going to core Democratic audiences - AARP conventions, union halls, teachers, places like that - to rev up the base. And he's very good at doing that and that's what he did last night.
Unfortunately, I think he did it by being rude and disrespectful. But Ryan on the other hand, has never lost an election in a very liberal state. He's good at going into a hostile audience and winning people over. And I think if you look at the polls last night after they went off the air, most of the undecided voters who Ryan's used to winning over did just that. He came across 10 points better on likeability, four points better on who won.
HEADLEE: Well, we got mixed reviews.
ORZULAK: We got mixed reviews on that.
CARY: This is CNN undecided is the one I'm talking about. Yeah.
HEADLEE: Some of the polls show Biden winning, some of the polls show Ryan winning.
HEADLEE: And I guess we'll have to settle it when we get..
CARY: Which is a draw, I guess. Yeah.
HEADLEE: But let's address some of the specific topics that they addressed last night. Foreign policy was one of them. The moderator, Martha Raddatz, opened with a question about the attack on America's embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Let's hear a part of Vice President Biden's response when he was posed a question about the lack of security in Libya.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
BIDEN: We weren't told they wanted more security again. We did not know they wanted more security again. And by the way, at the time we were told exactly - we said exactly what the intelligence community told us that they knew. That was the assessment.
HEADLEE: OK, Paul. The second half of that, that they issued a statement which was exactly what the intelligence community - that's undisputed. The part that is disputed by some fact checkers is that they hadn't asked for more security. Your response?
ORZULAK: Well, I think that it's still an open question. There's an official investigation on this now. Thomas Pickering, the former ambassador from the Reagan administration, is looking into this. But, you know, we live in this world now where we have 24-hour news cycles and presidents have to put out statements on things that happen right away - sometimes before we know all the details.
The White House, I think over the last two weeks since this happened, which was a terrible tragedy - you had an ambassador and three other Americans killed - you know, they told the American public what they knew at the time. I feel like we're learning more about it now and I don't know that there's any ground to be gained in politicizing this when we have so much more to talk about...
ORZULAK: ...in terms of the last four years - ending a war in Iraq, Osama bin Laden being taken out.
ORZULAK: Ending the war in Afghanistan. These are bigger issues. But there's no question that this is still a dangerous time in the Middle East and it will be and the next president needs to be a person that's able to...
HEADLEE: Address it. Yeah.
ORZULAK: ...keep America safe.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen to Paul Ryan's response and then get your answer, Mary Kate.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
RYAN: This Benghazi issue would be a tragedy in and of itself, but unfortunately it's indicative of a broader problem and that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.
HEADLEE: And that's something that we heard several times. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about last night's vice presidential debate with former presidential speechwriters Mary Kate Cary who worked with Republicans and Paul Orzulak who worked with Democrats, including Vice President Biden in preparation for last night's debate.
So Mary Kate, we heard several times Paul Ryan referring to the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy. How did that work for him?
CARY: I think he really did very well pointing out how deeply vulnerable the Democrats are on the Libyan question. This is one issue - you know, we've been debating taxes and the economy and Medicare for the last six months but this is one issue that will stick with this for the next month and go right up to Election Day.
The press is hot on this story. Clearly, the administration cannot stick with the same story from day to day. Just two days ago they said now it's come out that there were no protesters at all, which was directly contradictory to what the U.N. ambassador said on all the Sunday talk shows.
The thing that our listeners who may not have seen the thing last night are not seeing when you're playing these clips was as we were discussing the murdered ambassador and the embassy on fire and Iran getting the nuclear power, Vice President Biden was laughing, grimacing, rolling his eyes, sort of smirking to himself.
It was very, very odd the way - this was not a funny subject at all and yet he seemed to really be on another planet or something, the way he was reacting to what Ryan was saying. On radio I think Biden did well but on TV it really came across poorly.
HEADLEE: I agree with you he was making faces at Paul Ryan. I don't think he laughed during the Benghazi thing. But let's move on because I want to hit two more topics before we end our discussion here. One of them, of course, we have to talk about the economy. Democrats, many Democrats, criticized the president for not making reference to the video of Mitt Romney who seemed to dismiss 47 percent of Americans in that video.
But Vice President Biden did not hesitate to address it. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
BIDEN: But it shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend recently in his speech in Washington said 30 percent of the American people are takers. These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax.
HEADLEE: So, Paul, does this make up for what some Democrats saw as a lost opportunity in the presidential debate?
ORZULAK: No. But I think it restarts the conversation and gives the president the ability to talk about it next week. Look, there's a pretty universal view that there's a big difference between debate Romney and candidate Romney from last week, that the Governor Romney that we saw during the debate was very different from the Governor Romney that we saw in the previous 18 months.
The 47 percent comment, the 30 percent taker comment, that needs to be part of the conversation because that's who they are. It's not just one debate performance.
HEADLEE: Congressman Ryan repeatedly attacked the Obama administration on the economy. He talked about 43 months of unemployment above eight percent but the jobs numbers have been slowly improving. They were better than expected last month. Does that undercut the power of some of these attacks?
CARY: No, I think it doesn't. Because you've still got 23 million Americans out of work. You've still got record high food stamps. We've still got majorities of Americans saying we're on the wrong track.
But to go back to the trajectory of the race, I don't think this changes as much as it did last week. Last week really changed a lot. This week, not so much because I think these vice presidential debates - I was in the debate hall in 1988 when Lloyd Bentsen went after Dan Quayle and really kind of clobbered him and I thought, uh-oh. You know, now, we're really in trouble, and President Bush went on to win 40 out of 50 states. So I don't think the trajectory changed because of this debate. If anything, it gave us a roadmap for what's going to happen next week.
By the president coming out last night and saying, I couldn't be prouder if Joe Biden - after earlier in the week saying, I think I was too polite to Mitt Romney - that telegraphs to me that the president's game plan is going to be very disrespectful, rude, feeding more of this incivility in Washington. That's my prediction for next week. I think we see the Democratic playbook loud and clear right now.
HEADLEE: OK. All right.
ORZULAK: I'd be very surprised if that happens next week.
CARY: We'll see.
HEADLEE: All right. Well, let's get to one...
ORZULAK: I don't think Barack Obama's been rude a day in his life.
HEADLEE: Let's get to one last issue because, finally, we got a mention of at least one issue relating to women and that's when the moderator, Martha Raddatz, posed a question about abortion. Here's a short clip of Congressman Ryan. He's explaining why he's prolife and he's talking here about seeing his first child's sonogram. Take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
RYAN: We saw that heartbeat. Our little baby was in the shape of a bean and, to this day, we've nicknamed our firstborn child, Liza, Bean. Now, I believe that life begins at conception. That's why those are the reasons why I'm prolife.
HEADLEE: So, Mary Kate, this comment was almost immediately all over Twitter. Was this effective?
CARY: Well, personally, I had a very similar experience with a sonogram at six weeks and heard the heartbeat and I think that's becoming more and more common as technology progresses in American society. Right now, the polls show record number of Americans - record low identify themselves as pro-choice. Pro-life, with exceptions, which is what Congressman Ryan was talking about last night, is very much a mainstream view and I think it resonated with people.
I also will say, though, I thought Biden's answer was also very good on the same question of not imposing it on other people and, if you saw the CNN ticker there, people like that, too. Both answers were very, very good.
HEADLEE: All right. Hopefully, we will hear more about these kind of issues in the next presidential debate. That was Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, now a blogger and columnist for U.S. News and World Report. Also with us, Paul Orzulak. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton and with Al Gore during the 2000 election, also spent time with Vice President Biden helping him prepare for last night's debate. They both joined me here in our Washington studio.
Thank you both.
CARY: Thank you.
ORZULAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.