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Opinion: The Real Reason Ryan Was the Empty Suit in the Veep Debate

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A combination picture of the vice presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Last night's debate -- and the reactions today -- are all about Joe.  Vice President Joe Biden showed that he loves the thrill of the fight.  President Obama was criticized last week for seeming less than enthusiastic; nobody will level that charge against Biden.  He was energized, passionate and unafraid.  His interruptions may make headlines, but it's important to remember why he was interrupting -- he was calling out Ryan on his "stuff," his "malarkey" in a way the GOP needs to be called out.

It was a night about Biden and he accomplished his goal -- showing that the Obama Administration is serious and committed to their vision for America.  The response to Paul Ryan tended to focus on why he didn't belong on that stage.  As critics teased, he looked like a student body president debating a principal, a son's college friend getting dressed down by his friend's father at the dinner table or, as Bill Maher put it, a child getting beaten up by an old man right there on national television.

Yet, it's important to remember why Ryan does belong on that stage.  He may be young, he may be a lightweight, and he may have an arm's-length relationship with the truth, but he also is the policy leader of the Republican Party. 

Unlike Palin, Ryan wasn't unknown, and wasn't chosen to be a surprise game-change move.  He was chosen because he'd already done far more to lead his party's national policies than the man he'd be running aside.  For two years in a row, since he came into a leadership position in the House majority, the "Ryan Budget" was the blueprint for the GOP: cut social services, turn successful defined-benefit programs into risky vouchers, slash taxes for the wealthiest Americans and double-down on trickle-down.  It was a disastrous plan and the American people saw it for what it was.  While DC pundits praised it as bold and honest and brave, Americans saw that it sought to gut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  One pundit got it right when he slammed it as "right-wing social engineering."

That critic was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Ryan isn't an empty vessel the way Mitt Romney is; he's a full-on right-wing crusader.  And the Republican House Caucus has followed him off the cliff of sanity two years in a row, enthusiastically supporting his plan…in part because they are in the pocket of the super-rich behind these schemes, and in part because they don't have any other plan to follow.

Romney didn't choose a bland counterpart.  In a truly bold move, he chose someone more loved and respected in his own party circles that he is.  But he also inherited all the baggage.

When Ryan was pressed for budget details to reduce the defect last night, he couldn't offer any.  After years of detailing what he'd cut, he now finds himself speechless.  He's resorting to distortions about Obamacare and Medicare, because his own plan for senior healthcare -- which has been well-detailed -- is so unpopular.  In a national debate, when Ryan can't be as "severely conservative" as he'd like, he comes up as an empty suit…with little more to say than Clint Eastwood's empty chair.

It will be easy to mock his performance last night or to focus instead of Biden -- who with a series of laughs played his role of happy warrior.  But let's remember that Ryan was weak not only because he was backing away from a Biden onslaught, but because he was backing away from his own ideas.  And these ideas which are too poisonous for primetime are the central tenets of the Tea Party Republicans, are positions that Romney signaled to the right-wing he would embrace by choosing his running mate, and will make up a dangerous core to any Romney/Ryan policies.

VP debates may not move the needle and this debate will be forgotten.  But Ryan's true policy ideas live on in the Romney campaign and GOP.  Even after we stop debating about the strategy behind Joe's smile, let's keep talking about what Paul is hiding behind his own.