The vice-presidential debate: Style and substance
Charles Krauthammer said it well: If you watched the debate on TV, Paul Ryan won. If you listened to it on the radio, Joe Biden won.
I listened to the debate in audio only, on C-SPAN radio, and at several points got the impression that Ryan was bested. Biden, with his easy, drôle manner of speaking, seemed to communicate his points well and effectively. Ryan’s cadence is a bit stilted and calculated, and contrasts oddly with Biden’s; it seemed he came across like a butler, focused solely on the job, dispassionate in comparison with Biden and disconnected from the people.
But then there’s the video. This vice president made a mockery of his own office. He was a caricature. Speaking with passion is a gift and a strength, and can be used effectively while advocating a good and righteous message, but this was passion laced with derision. It was not vice-presidential, but more importantly it was not presidential–and both candidates needed to prove their suitability for that position, since either one could eventually assume it.
Ryan had a lot of successes, and one of them was handling Biden with poise. This was Paul Ryan’s first debate on a national stage, against an opponent with years of debate experience and decades in Government. It would have been very easy to retaliate in kind, but the Romney campaign obviously prepared him well. After Romney took decisive command of the first debate, their suspicion was likely that Biden, especially given his personality and the Obama campaign’s need for a strong showing, would attempt to do the same in this debate. If so, they were right, but they probably didn’t realize the extent to which Biden would overplay his hand. Ryan stood steady, a calm voice amid the vice president’s din. The contrast was evident to all.
Ryan was pointed in most of his responses, but he could have retorted with many more biting facts and still retained his poise. Biden’s talking point that Romney simply would have let Detroit go bankrupt was easy fodder. Bankruptcy is an orderly, lawful process that would have saved jobs. What’s more, the subject of Obama’s crony capitalism has already been broached in the debates, and Ryan could have pointed to 20,000 retirees from Delphi whose pensions were allowed to wilt and fade while the United Auto Workers saw theirs topped off–all at the behest of this administration.
The question of specifics on the tax loopholes that Romney’s plan would cut was a tense point for Ryan. He did refuse to give specifics about the loopholes that the plan would close: mortgage deductions, student loan deductions, or others. Biden effectively hammered him on this (many of his interruptions came at this point in the debate) because he wanted to hit this tender area of Americans’ concerns. These deductions are a sacred cow in American tax policy, but they are also a sign of dependence on a bloated and untenable tax code. Ryan likely didn’t want to overstep his bounds in this area, and he did emphasize that tax law is rightly the purview of Congress–and separation of powers is something this White House needs to learn.
Ryan did communicate a crucial calculation that should be repeated ad infinitum until the Federal budget deficit is eliminated: “[I]f 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.” That fact alone shows (1) how sickening the level of spending has become; (2) that Obama’s soak-the-rich rhetoric is baseless and vile (especially given that the top 10 percent already pay 70 percent of tax revenues); and (3) that the American economic machine is so powerful, we will be able to fix the debt and deficits if we allow citizens to create more businesses, and for those to thrive under low-tax, low-regulation policies.
Biden, as many news outlets are making known, has some outright lies to account for. He claimed he voted against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; he voted for them. He claimed the administration was not told of the need for more security personnel at the consulate in Benghazi. This is either a lie, or a dreadful admission of malpractice and negligence on the part of the administration. Did the repeated requests for more security not make it to the White House, especially given the raw status of Libya so soon after a regime change? Biden also repeated the widely-debunked $5 trillion tax hike Romney supposedly includes in his tax reform plan. This seems to be a case of repeating falsehoods loudly enough until they stick.
Conclusion: On forcefulness and pretension, Biden was the victor. But on self-control, poise, and facts, Ryan was the better man. Political dodging occurred on both sides, but the Vice President has a lot to explain. Perhaps Obama will care to do so in New York tonight.