Debating the Vice-Presidential Candidates
The first and only vice-presidential debate is in our rearview mirror now and, despite the fact that it doesn’t really matter since no one votes for vice-president, it was a doozy.
There were times when Vice President Biden seemed to come unglued, as if listening to one more minute of Paul Ryan’s “malarkey” might make his head explode. He laughed, he shook his head, he threw up his hands … and, of course, he interrupted. And all of it was in the service of a fairly relentless attack on the Romney/Ryan ticket — their lack of specifics on the economy, their specifics on Medicare, Social Security, and women’s rights, and their general contempt for anyone who hasn’t built a business from the ground up without any assistance from anyone ever.
Anyone who began the evening a fan of Biden is certain this morning that he won the debate going away.
That said, Ryan didn’t appear to lose focus or to wither under the barrage from Biden. He generally stuck to the points he was sent there to make and maintained a sort of cool, almost detached demeanor throughout. I suspect it will be this attitude that fans of Romney/Ryan will play up, though they pilloried President Obama for it just last week, and they’ll contrast it with Biden’s aggressive, borderline insulting tone.
But there are three things that will be difficult for Republicans to argue against and they are the central reason I score the debate for Biden:
- Martha Raddatz repeatedly asked Ryan for specifics about the Romney/Ryan tax plan and Ryan repeatedly refused to provide any. At one point in their exchange, Raddatz actually said, “So, no specifics, then?” Biden pushed the point, arguing that even the few specifics they’ve provided aren’t mathematically possible. Ryan’s only response was, “Yes, they are.”
- Biden spoke directly to the camera when he addressed the issues of Medicare and Social Security, making the case that a Romney/Ryan administration will make life much harder for seniors living on fixed incomes. He brought up the specter of rising prescription drug expenses and, of course, the dreaded vouchers. “Their ideas are old and their ideas are bad,” he said.
- Finally, Ryan trotted out one of those examples that politicians love to use, of real people whose tragic or heartwarming stories give us insight into the politicians themselves. But he chose about as poorly as one could imagine. Attempting to demonstrate that Mitt Romney is both “a car guy” — despite opposing the auto bailout — and incredibly charitable, he brought up a Massachusetts family whose children were injured in a terrible car accident; Romney met with them and very generously offered to pay for their college tuition. This is, of course, a great story about Romney and the implicit argument about private charity rather than taxation are sure to warm the hearts of Randian objectivists. But it was a stunning error to bring up a tragic auto accident in the middle of a debate with Joe Biden. A nice summation can be found over at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog:
When you debate competitively there are some issues you know not to address. There are others you know to better than to pursue. Then there are those that must be avoided at all costs — that must not even be mentioned lest your loss become an object lesson in unwitting self-immolation. Whether Ryan’s handlers wanted to watch him burn or Ryan was simply too stupid to recognize the brutal inefficacy of his anecdote matters less than the fact that he said it with his “honest face” to Joe Biden’s actual one ….
The attempt to elicit sympathy for Romney by anecdotal proxy is a poor enough of a play. The decision to do so via an anecdote about a tragic car accident in a debate with Joe Biden means you’re either a sociopath or possessed of an idiocy of immeasurable power.
The two policy-related failures — on economic specifics and on seniors — are probably going to be forgotten. After all, it’s in the best interest of the challenger to avoid specifics — though it’s more difficult to do so when the moderator directly challenges you — and to offer platitudes that are designed to sound great to wide swathes of the population. But the failure of the auto accident anecdote is an absolutely stunning mistake that explains why Biden’s demeanor suggested that he was both incredibly exasperated by and fairly dismissive of Paul Ryan.
My live-blog of the debate — in all of its Burrian glory — is here, for those who missed it.