Thursday, October 11, 2012 – the Orioles live to play another day, finally beating the damned Yankees in extra innings, forcing a game five to decide it all, or at least to decide just who gets to move on to decide who wins the American League this year. The World Series is a long way off. The Cincinnati Reds guys, however, can call it a year and go home and brood about what might have been. The Giants will be moving on, not them. If you win the first two and lose the next three such things happen. But that happened early in the day, in the middle of the afternoon, and left time for a pleasant drive south, across the river through Covington and down through horse country – all those white rail fences and rolling green hills – to the sleepy college town of Danville, Kentucky. The drive from Cincinnati only takes a few hours and if you’re not going to be playing any more baseball this year you might as well move on, and that evening, at Centre College down there in Danville, there was the long-anticipated vice presidential debate. Joe Biden faced off against Paul Ryan. Would the wily and warm and loose and happy Joe Biden put the pompous and shallow twit, Paul Ryan, in his place and change the dynamic of everything again? It was the old and what-the-hell Joe Biden, pushing seventy-years old, versus the sanctimonious young Paul Ryan, all of forty-two, in a one game series. There’s only one debate for the back-up guys. It wasn’t baseball, but there would be no more baseball for Reds fans anyway. It would have to do.
There was a bit of drama after all. After a poor debate performance against Mitt Romney, who simply changed all his positions and denied he ever said all the things he’d been saying for the last year and a half, Obama’s lead in all the polling had evaporated and it seemed certain now, at least among those who like to panic, that Obama will lose this election. Obama was in an awful position – and it was up to Joe Biden to save him.
That’s kind of what Joe Biden did. Anyone who watched MSNBC after the debate saw their crew of populist-progressives heave a sigh of relief. Biden stood up for Obama and for the poor and middle class and for women and for science and fact and common sense. He did what Obama was too polite or too distracted or too complacent to do, righting the ship. Over on Fox News, the voice of the Republican Party and of big business and the Jesus-folks, the talk was of how Paul Ryan held his own pretty damned well – he was calm and deliberate and had done his homework, and he was dignified, and also buff. He is a fit fellow. CNN did its usual, letting the shills from each side have their say and saying nothing themselves. Someone said Biden came off as a buffoon, while someone else said he nailed it this time. CNN’s poll had the thing as a draw, with a slight advantage to Ryan, and out here, Mark Kleiman of the UCLA School of Public Policy, who blogs on his own time, had perhaps the best assessment – “Well, that should stop the bleeding, anyway.” This debate returned the presidential race back to its policy essentials, without all the talk of presentation strategies and personality defects and hypothetical momentum. Maybe we could talk about the real stuff after all.
The New York Times reports that’s pretty much what Biden and Ryan did:
Within a single minute, Mr. Biden worked in three attacks on his rivals, referring to Mr. Romney’s opposition to the auto industry bailout, his statement that the foreclosure crisis would have to “run its course” and his comment about “47 percent” of Americans who he said were over-reliant on government benefits.
“These guys bet against America all the time,” said Mr. Biden, whose temperature was running close to boil for most of the evening.
Mr. Ryan, who kept his composure for most of the night, suggested that Mr. Romney misspoke when talking about the 47 percent. He added pointedly, “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”
But Mr. Biden retorted sharply: “But I always say what I mean. And so does Romney.”
That’s one issue and foreign policy was another:
Mr. Ryan offered a point-by-point rebuttal of the vice president, accusing the administration of lacking “credibility” in its international approach to Iran because it sent mixed signals and asserting that the tough sanctions came about only because of the fortitude of Congress, as the administration sought to “water down” the trading restrictions.
He sharply criticized the administration’s handling of the terrorist strike in Libya that killed the American ambassador, saying: “It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack. Look, if we’re hit by terrorists, we’re going to call it what it is, a terrorist attack.”
Mr. Ryan chastised Mr. Obama, questioning why the United States did not have protection for the diplomatic compound. He declared, “This is becoming more troubling by the day.”
But as Mr. Biden reminded Mr. Ryan that he and House Republicans cut the budget for the security, he sought to use the question about the attack in Libya to immediately begin the attack on Mr. Romney’s positioning. He contrasted Mr. Obama’s overall foreign policy record with Mr. Romney’s, ranging from Iraq to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“The president has led with a steady hand and clear vision; Governor Romney hasn’t,” Mr. Biden said. “The last thing we need is another war.”
And of course Biden challenged Ryan. What would you guys do differently? You agree sanctions on Iran are important, and we’re doing them, but you don’t like our tone or that we got Russia and the rest of the world on board with our sanctions? You agree we should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 but you don’t like the way we’re doing it? You don’t want troops on the ground in Syria but you say we should be doing something else. What? If you want us in a war there, say so.
Medicare came up too. Ryan said he and Romney want to save it and Biden laughed – “These guys haven’t been big on Medicare from the beginning. Who do you trust on this? You are jeopardizing this program.” Ryan could only say Biden was trying to scare folks.
Time’s Swampland fills in a few details:
Where Obama pulled punches, Biden swung from his heels, repeatedly invoking Romney’s damning comments about the 47% of Americans who see themselves as “victims” and rely on government. “I’ve had it up to here with this notion that, ‘Forty-seven percent, it’s about time they take some sort of responsibility here,’” Biden said. He chided the Republican ticket for embellishing the shaky state of the economy to score political points, and for eliding the GOP’s role in causing the exploding deficits they pin on Obama.
“I’ve never met two guys who’re more down on America across the board. We’re told everything’s going bad. There are 5.2 million new jobs, private-sector jobs,” Biden said. “Show me a policy where you take responsibility. And, by the way, they talk about this Great Recession as if it fell out of the sky … It came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on the credit card, a trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy. I was there. I voted against them. I said, no, we can’t afford that.”
There’s also this:
In several testy exchanges, Biden also accused Ryan of twisting the truth. “Not a single thing he said is accurate,” he said after Ryan’s first answer. “That’s a bunch of malarkey,” he exclaimed later, when Ryan attacked Obama for imposing defense cuts that Congressional Republicans – including himself – in fact supported. “This is a bunch of stuff,” Biden groused later, prompted moderator Martha Raddatz to ask what he meant. “It’s Irish,” Ryan responded, one of his few moments of humor in a debate whose levity largely consisted of Biden visibly snickering while Ryan spoke.
The final assessment:
It seems unlikely the debate will drastically shake up the race – and certainly not to the degree that Romney’s drubbing of Obama upended the contest. In an instant poll by CNN/ORC, 48% of respondents said Ryan won the debate, while 44% preferred Biden. But there was no question that Biden dominated the debate, bringing to bear his four decades on Capitol Hill in an animated performance. His broadsides and body slams seemed geared to energize a Democratic base dispirited by Obama’s flop last week, while Ryan’s steady, constrained answers appeared calibrated to appeal to moderate voters the Republican ticket wants to coax into their camp. Whether you preferred the Democrat or the Republican may hinge on whether you found Biden’s forceful performance brilliant or boorish.
One man’s boorishness is another man’s blunt honesty. Opinions will vary, and over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall offers this:
I’d call the first exchange on foreign policy basically a draw. Biden was on uncomfortable terrain on the Libya story. On each successive encounter, Biden was on the offensive and owned the conversation. I don’t think it was close. Ryan looked like a kid and certainly on foreign policy totally out of his depth. People forget that Biden’s lived foreign policy and national security for decades. He knows the stuff inside and out. The most difficult moment for Ryan was when [the moderator Martha] Raddatz and Biden both pressed him for any specifics on how they can play for their tax plan. He simply refused. That’s all he could do because they have no way to pay for it. That’ll leave a bruise and cue up questions for next week.
After the debate ended, Republicans were calling it a draw and Democrats were calling it a strong win for Biden. That tells you all you need to know.
Marshall is fine with Biden this time:
Biden made the whole Democratic argument – on policy and values and he hit Romney really everywhere Democrats wanted him to. He left nothing unsaid. You can agree with those points or not. But this was exceedingly important for recovering the damage from last week’s debate when many Obama supporters simply felt that Obama wasn’t willing or able or something to make the case Democrats around the country are hyped up to make. Why didn’t you say this? Why’d you let him get away with that?
Biden said it all. And for Democrats around the country that was extremely important.
The Economist’s live-blog reads things the same way:
Joe Biden was easily the more memorable debater in every way; he was louder, more emotional, lucid, detailed, garrulous, grinning, teary-eyed and just Joe Biden. He sank some real barbs into Romney-Ryan. The Biden that Mr Obama hired in 2008 to excite lower-middle-class types from Scranton showed up and did his job. Ryan was cool – impressively calm given is unpredictable opponent – and detailed, but seemed reactive much of the night. He could have put Obama-Biden on the spot for their deficit failures more effectively; as it was, more time was spent on how Mr Romney’s numbers don’t add up (a potential future deficit) than the actual deficit itself. Democrats can walk away with a spring in their step again, confident that the story line is no longer all about Mr Obama’s awful showing last week. A modest net positive for the Democrats…
The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore isn’t so sure about that:
Well, can’t see anyone calling this a big win. Ryan will, as I predicted, get props for “holding his own” re foreign policy. He was also fluid and stuck to the Romney plan of making the ticket seem reasonable. Biden was up and down, but scored pretty well on Afghanistan, on defense spending, on abortion, and perhaps on Medicare. Kind of mixed on overall budget and economy; depends on what you know about the facts.
On the other hand, Elias Isquith offers this:
Biden does a good job of interjecting himself into Ryan’s time, usually to say a quick dart like “Not true” or “Nope” and the like. Ryan isn’t doing the same – I don’t know if it’s been decided that he’ll come off as presumptuous or disrespectful. The end-result: He’s been defending himself the entire night, both his arguments and the veracity of the factual statements that are cited to support them. Joe attacks, talks, chuckles, and often goes a little too far. Ryan tries to respond and turn the attack into a reckless, cynical, and desperate gambit by a flailing Administration. It works sometimes, but – perhaps I’m a blinded partisan – I can’t help but avoid concluding that Biden has come right up to the precipice of calling Ryan a “liar” without paying the price. It’s a hard thing to do, but if you can do it to your opponent, it’s devastating.
Slate’s David Weigel gets all literary:
Reading this transcript is going to be like scanning a David Mamet play. Biden never gave up the momentum he won in the first five minutes — he seems physically unable to let Ryan finish an answer, interrupting him as if he’s live-tweeting to correct every factoid he dislikes. Whether or not this Biden performance helps Obama, you could sell bootleg DVDs of it to Dems for $20.
And Ezra Klein simply fact-checks Ryan:
Paul Ryan began his comments on the economy by asking Biden if he knows where unemployment is today in Scranton, PA. Ten percent, Ryan said. When Obama and Biden came in to office, Ryan continued, it was 8.5 percent. “That’s how it’s going all around America,” Ryan said. That’s not actually true. The national unemployment rate is now 7.8 percent. In January 2009, when Obama was inaugurated, unemployment was 7.8 percent. In February 2009, Obama’s first full month in office, unemployment was over eight percent. So it’s simply not the case that a 1.5 percentage point increase in unemployment is “how it’s going all around America.”
Facts matter and Kevin Drum wonders about Ryan’s tax logic:
Ryan’s basic tax message seems to be that raising taxes on the rich isn’t enough to close the entire deficit, so it’s obviously not worth doing.
Drum wonders about that and the Daily Beast’s Justin Green offers this comment on Biden:
You don’t survive 30+ years in Washington without being one savvy, savvy guy. It’s showing tonight.
And finally there’s Andrew Sullivan:
I have to say that Biden did to Ryan what Cheney did to Edwards in style and demeanor and authority. Ryan was hampered by an insurmountable problem on the impossible mathematics of the Romney budget. I think his inability to answer that question – how do you pay for it? – has to be the driving question now. The only way to afford it is to cut middle class deductions and middle class entitlements much more than Obama-Biden would.
I’d love radical tax reform – but I’m not crazy enough to believe you can actually tackle the debt by cutting taxes and increasing defense spending and leaving Medicare basically alone (no ACA-style cost-controls) and only removing deductions for the very rich. It doesn’t add up. They know it. And when challenged – even by Fox News – he cannot provide the details.
So this was a solid win for Biden, I’d say; as well as a competent performance by Ryan.
Sometimes competent isn’t good enough. The Cincinnati Reds were more than a competent baseball team this year, and they lost when it mattered most.
To that end, see David Roberts – “The GOP complaint, if I’m hearing them correctly, is that Joe Biden smiled and laughed too much while kicking their candidate’s ass.”
Kevin Drum sees where that’s going:
The Fox News crowd is going absolutely nuts over Biden’s smiling and laughing. I guess I don’t blame them, really. I probably would too if I were them. Partly this is because I think Biden overdid things on this score, but mostly because it’s a lot easier than trying to take on the substance of the debate, where Biden pretty clearly got the better of Ryan. However, this will be a good test of the right’s ability to drive the media conversation. Conservatives are going all in about how condescending and inappropriate and just plain insulting Biden’s laughing was, and how it’s really the big takeaway from the debate. (Karl Rove: “It’s what people will remember twenty years from now.” Greta Van Susteren is just flatly insisting that this ought to be the main media narrative in the morning.)
But they’re obviously protesting too much. I don’t think it will fly this time.
There’s also this:
I thought Paul Ryan was unusually brazen in his defense of the Republican insistence on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Biden made the reasonable point that you could easily vote separately on extending the cuts for the middle class and extending the cuts for the rich, but Republicans refuse to do that: “They’re holding hostage the middle class tax cut to the super wealthy.”
Look, if you taxed every person and successful business making over $250,000 at 100 percent, it would only run the government for 98 days. If everybody who paid income taxes last year, including successful small businesses, doubled their income taxes this year, we’d still have a $300 billion deficit. You see? There aren’t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending.
And so the next time you hear them say, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll get a few wealthy people to pay their fair share,” watch out, middle class, the tax bill’s coming to you.
That’s kind of breathtaking, no? First, he says that ending tax cuts for the rich wouldn’t solve the entire deficit problem all by itself, so therefore we shouldn’t do it. Huh? Then he attempts some jujitsu by suggesting that if you’re in favor of partly solving the deficit problem with tax hikes on the rich, then “watch out, middle class, the tax bill’s coming to you.” Double huh? I wonder if anyone fell for that.
No, but it doesn’t matter. Drum reports that his wife said Ryan looked like an “entry level” vice president. His comment – “Very perceptive, I’d say.”
And that was that. The game was over and Biden kind of won this one, although some might disagree – but that too doesn’t matter. In baseball terms this was a Triple-A game – minor league ball, with the old guys playing out their final years and fresh-faced rookies not yet ready for the big leagues. The World Series, with the pros, is still a long way off. Still minor league baseball is kind of fun. And visit Danville. It’s fine place.