Reactions to the veep debate.
First you have to decide whether it’s all about substance or style.
If it’s style, then it’s all about Joe Biden’s facial expressions. It started with Paul Ryan’s first long answer, ripping the Obama administration for its changing story about whether the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was a spontaneous mob action or an organized terrorist action.
To me, the tragic incident is a bit overrated, especially if it’s going to become the symbol of Obama administration foreign policy. But the administration is justifiably embarrassed for allowing the attack to succeed and for taking too long to figure out its source.
Of course, Team Romney is in the market for any cockup it can use to embarrass the administration. This is normal, natural and inevitable in a modern campaign. Moderator Martha Raddatz might as well have just said: “Congressman Ryan, please rip the administration for a minute or two about Benghazi.” And Ryan did.
But as soon as the camera showed Vice President Biden flashing a big toothy grin during Ryan’s peroration, and then showed him laughing ruefully and finally actually mouthing the words “that’s not true,” I thought that this would become the story of the night and probably swing voters aren’t going to like this version of Joe Biden.
And it never stopped.
Old vs. young
Cut to the first post-debate seconds when Fox News surveyed their crew for reactions, specifically Britt Hume’s reaction, which he said would be all about Biden’s grinning. “I thought it was…It looked like a cranky old man debate a polite young man.”
This morning, I read that the twitterverse lit up instantly with reactions to Biden’s facial expressions with predictable comparisons to Al Gore’s disastrous sighing and eye-rolling during his first 2000 campaign debate against George W. Bush.
Obviously, Dem spinners were to going to say that this was Biden being Biden, that he is a passionate guy who lets his feelings show. It’s also possible that Biden was overcompensating for President Obama’s low-key performance in the first debate, which is universally conceded to have been a political disaster.
Personally, I didn’t care for Biden’s mugging. Let Ryan talk, then point out your disagreements with his answers, factually and otherwise. But I also wish the whole country could take a pledge to actually listen and think about facts and arguments and stop letting every debate be about facial expressions, body language, manners and other issues of style and “optics.”
But what if the debate was about substance?
To me, Biden won the substantial arguments, although maybe “substance” isn’t the perfect word for what I’m describing if by “substance” we mean a battle of facts and figures. Ryan is very good at facts and figures. Today and tomorrow, the fact-checkers will shed some light on which statistics were stretched and which were spot on. Personally, I didn’t hear a whole lot of obvious howlers from either candidate.
The argument that Biden won (in my subjective perception) was the big one, the are-you-better-off- than-four-years-ago one, the whose-side-are-you-on one. In fact, I should call this a substantive argument, and I shouldn’t imply that substance can thrive without facts or figures. The argument I’m talking about is a more general argument about recent history and the fundamental nature of the two parties.
Edge of abyss
Four years ago — four years ago this very month — the financial system was poised on the edge of an abyss so scary that even the Republicans in Congress had to go along with a massive government intervention. That was the eighth year of the Bush presidency and, although life is complicated and certainly the inner workings of the global economy are mysterious, the way these things work, President Bush and his policies and his party have to accept the political responsibility for that scary month and for most of the massive cost of keeping the economy from falling completely off that cliff.
Those policies featured deregulation and tax cuts, especially for the wealthy. They included the cost two wars, at least one of which was sold on a lie or, to put it more charitably, willing suspension of disbelief and refusal to accept the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Obama, by the way, opposed the U.S. entry into Iraq. Biden voted for it. He has since expressed regret for that vote. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan supported the entry into the war and have never, so far as I know, admitted error.
When Biden said “we don’t need another war,” he was noting that the two current wars started under Bush, but he was also flying at a fairly high altitude over facts and history. He wasn’t engaging the Ryan meme that the Obama administration “projects weakness” and that weakness invites aggression. He was suggesting that the hawks and necons who, in recent history at least, always seem to have another war they want to fight, have become a wing of the Republican Party.
Biden can thrust and parry with Ryan over details of bills, although I think Ryan is better at it. But when it gets to the big, substantive architecture of the argument, that’s where I think Biden connected.
He did a much better job than Obama did of suggesting, when you get above the details, the Republicans are always seeking another tax cut for the rich. They are always trying to privatize or voucherize Social Security and Medicare because, as he said last night, they’ve never been too crazy about those programs, and he told the viewing audience that they are allowed “listen to their instincts” and “trust their instincts” about which party is really committed to preserving those programs.