The debate between Vice President Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan was almost painful to watch, but it was probably useful in terms of reminding voters what each party stands for.
The Democrats are the ones who promise more stuff. "Any senior out there today, ask yourself, do you have more benefits today? You do," Mr. Biden said, looking right into the camera and taking credit for reducing the "doughnut hole" for prescription drugs in Medicare and for "wellness visits" with "no copay."
Mr. Biden was not shy about how long he's been around, boasting that he was in the room in 1983 when Tip O'Neill cut a deal and saying that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has "been my friend for 39 years."
The Democrats also pose as the enemies of the rich. Mr. Biden accused Republicans of "holding hostage the middle class tax cut" for the "superwealthy." He mentioned hedge funds and said, "the biggest loophole they are taking advantage of is the carried interest, the capital gains loophole."
Mr. Ryan was effective when he focused on criticizing the current administration. He said President Obama had gone from "hope and change" to "attack, blame, and defame. He said the Obama-Biden approach has been "more spending, more borrowing, higher taxes, a government takeover of health care. It's not working." He said that voters had a choice between growth under the Romney approach or four more years of a "stagnant economy that promotes more government dependency."
That's the choice, really. The Democrats say they'll give you more benefits, in part by taxing rich people more. The Republicans say the Democrats are promoting "government dependency" and the result is a weaker economy and more debt. The Republicans also say that the Democrats are spending so much that it would be impossible to pay for it all just by raising taxes on the rich. "Watch out, middle class, the tax bill's coming to you," Mr. Ryan said at one point in the debate.
I don't think either candidate really swung many presidential votes, though polls will eventually tell on that front. But the debate did help to clarify the choice in the election.