Thoughts on the VP Debate: “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?”

Blue steel? Source: Time.com

Like many of the members of my generation who hope that somewhere deep inside the gloomy shell of the  the candidate from 2008 who promised that “we were the one’s we’d been waiting for” and that his election would change the world remains a President who can accomplish that, I was extremely disappointed in the Presidential debate last week. There was barely a memorable line or moment. Instead, the first debate will likely go down in history as the debate that-mentally-only one man showed up for. It wasn’t Jim Lehrer, and it certainly wasn’t President Obama. Obama’s terrible performance left me questioning whether I can really vote for him again. Why would I bother, when he couldn’t even bother to do the appropriate level of debate prep? Why would I donate to his campaign when he often seems incapable of explaining his vision for America and unable to even defend his own record? President Obama has a lot to make up for in the next two debates.

Last night (or whatever night it was – the time zone thing here really messes with my head), Vice President Biden helped to stop the bleeding, and did an excellent job of reminding America both how ridiculous the Romney platform is, and what – to use a friend’s phrase – a smarmy shit Congressman Ryan is. Most of the discussion about the debate revolves around whether Biden was too rude and too over-the-top in his constant interrupting, laughing, challenging, and grinning at Ryan’s answers. I think that, except for when he got a bit too aggressive during the part about tax policy, it was perfect.

Biden reacted the way that he did because Ryan’s stock lies are absurd and insulting. Even the moderator wouldn’t let him get away with it:

MODERATOR: Well, let’s talk about this 20 percent. You have refused — and, again — to offer specifics on how you pay for that 20 percent across-the-board tax cut. Do you actually have the specifics? Or are you still working on it, and that’s why you won’t tell voters?

RYAN: Different than this administration, we actually want to have big bipartisan agreements. You see, I understand the…

MODERATOR: Do you have the specifics? Do you have the…

BIDEN: That would — that would be a first for the Republican Congress.

MODERATOR: Do you know exactly what you’re doing?

RYAN: Look — look at what Mitt Romney — look at what Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill did. They worked together out of a framework to lower tax rates and broaden the base, and they worked together to fix that.

What we’re saying is, here’s our framework. Lower tax rates 20 percent. We raised about $1.2 trillion through income taxes. We forego about $1.1 trillion in loopholes and deductions. And so what we’re saying is, deny those loopholes and deductions to higher-income taxpayers so that more of their income is taxed, which has a broader base of taxation…

BIDEN: Can I translate?

RYAN: … so we can lower tax rates across the board. Now, here’s why I’m saying this. What we’re saying is, here’s the framework…

MODERATOR: No specifics, again.

RYAN: Mitt — what we’re saying is, lower tax rates 20 percent, start with the wealthy, work with Congress to do it…

MODERATOR: And you guarantee this math will add up?

Ryan even comes out and says “start with the wealthy.” That’s the entire premise of the Romney campaign. Start with the wealthy, and piss all over the middle class. To be fair, Paul Ryan did a reasonable job in advocating his positions clearly. But he’s so overhyped.

The media labels him a policy wonk and Republicans seem to think he’s the next coming of Reagan. I’ve always thought he was a paper tiger. His policies are thin at best, and all of his major speeches have been downright terrible. Remember his State of the Union response, where his eyes were so red and glazed over he looked like he’d been hitting bongs with Michael Phelps moments before? Or his convention speech, where he sounded like a candidate for high school class president?

Paul Ryan, looking seriously stoned

My favorite exchange came right after that, though:

RYAN: You can — you can cut tax rates by 20 percent and still preserve these important preferences for middle-class taxpayers…

BIDEN: Not mathematically possible.

RYAN: It is mathematically possible. It’s been done before. It’s precisely what we’re proposing.

BIDEN: It has never been done before.

RYAN: It’s been done a couple of times, actually.

BIDEN: It has never been done before.

RYAN: Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth. Ronald Reagan…

BIDEN: Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?

(LAUGHTER)

RYAN: Ronald Reagan — Republicans and Democrats…

BIDEN: This is amazing.

RYAN: Republican and Democrats have worked together on this.

BIDEN: That’s right.

RYAN: You know, I understand you guys aren’t used to doing bipartisan deals…

BIDEN: But we told each other what we’re going to do.

RYAN: Republicans and Democrats…

BIDEN: When we did it Reagan, we said, here — here are the things we’re going to cut.

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN: That’s what we said.

RYAN: We said here’s the framework, let’s work together to fill in the details. That’s exactly…

BIDEN: Fill in the detail.

RYAN: That’s how you get things done. You work with Congress — look, let me say it this way.

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN: That’s coming from a Republican Congress working bipartisanly, 7 percent rating? Come on.

Biden showed that he understands what President Obama clearly does not about politics. It’s not just about being right, about being more honest, or about having better policies and letting the voters decide. Politics is war. If the other side is being dishonest, you have to call them out. You have to show everybody just how absurd they’re being. Because even if voters know that Romney is dishonest and untrustworthy, they respect a strong candidate who can stand up and fight for his positions more than one – like Obama – who just backs off and assumes that through public policy he’ll somehow prevail. As Bill Clinton famously said, in times of crisis voters prefer a candidate who is “wrong and strong than right and weak.” It’s unfortunate, but correct. In the Presidential Debate, Mitt Romney looked like the alpha male in the room: he stood up straight, smiled, and spoke from a place of strength. Obama slumped and dithered. He ceded his position. Biden clearly was not going to repeat that.

There was a key moment near the end of the debate that hasn’t been discussed enough, though. Both candidates were asked about abortion. Romney seems to have tried to pivot on the issue, telling a paper in Iowa that he had no intention of passing laws to limit access to abortion if elected. Clearly, he was lying yet again:

MODERATOR: I want to go back to the abortion question here. If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?

RYAN: We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.

Translation: Yes. We should all be worried. Ryan kept bringing up a quote from Obama in 2008: “if you don’t have a good record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone to run from.” There’s a reason that the Obama campaign has painted Romney-Ryan as a ticket to run from: it is.

I don’t think that a clear winner came out of the debate. Biden was much better on foreign policy, but there’s very little actual disagreement between the two tickets there, despite the way they try and portray it. The real issues were economic and social. Democrats are going to think Biden won. Republicans are going to think that Ryan won. But at least it wasn’t another disaster, and it’ll energize Democrats depressed by the last debate. Now, if only President Obama can pull himself together and shut down Romney in a similar way, he might be able to win some momentum. Obama should memorize this exchange:

BIDEN: With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.

MODERATOR: And why is that so?

BIDEN: Because not a single thing he said is accurate. First of all…

MODERATOR: Be specific.

BIDEN: I will be very specific.

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