A long held theory is that debates between vice-presidential candidates are, like Seinfeld, about nothing. But in this most peculiar election, the vice-presidential debate was about many things—with the exception of what it should have been about: a test of each candidate’s qualification to be president on a moment’s notice.
But, like Banquo’s ghost, the president’s sub-par performance in the first presidential debate only eight days before hovered over this one, and had been all the talk. Before the first presidential debate it looked as though President Obama was on the way to winning a smashing reelection victory, and Mitt Romney’s campaign was almost given up for dead by his own party. But as a result of last week’s debate (and something of an overreaction to it), polls were suddenly indicating a shift in Romney’s direction; and—most dangerous to Obama—the Republicans were at last showing enthusiasm for their candidate.
The president’s campaign had all along been worried about a decline in enthusiasm among his most spirited backers in 2008. This time, they weren’t so “fired up, ready to go,” and Obama’s first debate performance made many of his remaining supporters even angry with him. It’s pretty hard to get people to march behind a weary and even disinterested commander. It fell to Biden to stop the talk about the first presidential debate as the defining moment of Obama’s reelection campaign.
The yin/yang between Obama and Romney now produced a resuscitated Romney campaign—a campaign on the move. Romney himself was reinvigorated, drawing larger crowds than ever. Polls that had shown Obama to have the Electoral College essentially in the bag were indicating that Romney was suddenly narrowing the gap. In this situation it was harder than usual to discern the long-term from the temporary.
Paul Ryan was in an even more complicated situation. Romney could afford to change the color of his coat every day—he could make himself up as he went along, as he thought the situation warranted. Moreover this was likely the last stop in his political career. But Ryan has held a powerful position in the House that he hopes to return to, and a base that is key to his power and his future as a powerful leader of the Republican right—and perhaps even as his party’s next presidential nominee. Just before Romney’s political pulse started showing signs of life, Ryan’s allies on the right were putting it about that a big factor in Romney’s expected loss was that he didn’t “let Ryan be Ryan.” One heard that Ryan was unhappy on the ticket. It’s doubtful that such rumors were discouraged by the highly motivated and fast-climbing young politician.
In the debate, Biden worked to display Ryan as the callow youth and himself as the more experienced senior statesman. And Ryan became caught in the contradictions of the Republican ticket: the moderate, then severely-conservative, and now once again sort-of-moderate Romney; and the radical Ryan, who had wanted to turn Medicare into a voucher program and slash domestic programs while cutting taxes on the wealthy—but was being reined in. Earlier, Ryan had been required by House Republican leaders to tone down his proposals in order to get his budget through the House, and then was forced to modulate further after he was selected to be Romney’s running mate. He even renounced Ayn Rand.
Biden, drawing on his prosecutorial skills (he had once practiced law), made it clear that the Republicans have no workable solution for speeding up the economy: what Romney proposes, he said, is “mathematically impossible.” Rubbing it in, Biden said, “This is amazing.” More than once Ryan, the self-produced “ideas politician,” talked talking points or made ideological statements rather than substantive proposals, as ideas politicians are wont to do. They seem to actually think that way, that the hard work of translating ideas into legislation isn’t necessary.
But Ryan never quite caught up with the whirling dervish at the top of the GOP ticket—that is, if he wanted to. And so in the debate Ryan staked out some positions that could bedevil Romney in the closing weeks of the campaign—on Medicare, Afghanistan, and taxes, among other things. But the most troublesome for Romney of Ryan’s departures from the script was on the inevitably consternating subject of abortion, on which Romney had just taken his umpteenth position.
Romney has a way of making it appear that he has changed a position more than he has. Thus, he hadn’t really abandoned his $5 trillion tax cut, though in his first debate with Obama he employed certain words that suggested that he had. Romney may look and act the square but his statements are often slippery. The Romney who was seeking his party’s nomination said he wanted to get rid of Roe v. Wade and defund Planned Parenthood; in his latest incarnation Romney sort of but not precisely indicated that he wasn’t contemplating new anti-abortion legislation. This statement was soon followed by the now quite common scurrying of his aides to try to sort out what he did and didn’t mean—an exercise that rarely has been successful.
With Romney’s precise new position on abortion still being sorted out, and the moderator Martha Raddatz asking the vice-presidential contenders about the subject, which could not have been a surprise, Ryan was trapped. Romney was going moderate and Ryan had co-sponsored some of the most restrictive legislation (along with the unfortunate Todd Akin) ever to come before the House, and abortion is of course an issue of great importance to his own base. So when asked in the debate where he stood, Ryan paused for a moment and took a position held by the most radical Republicans (including Akin): that a fertilized egg is a person; and—in a direct hit on what Romney had just said—“We don’t believe that unelected judges should make these decisions.” This was an old saw that the right had for decades applied to Supreme Court decisions they didn’t like—including Brown v. Board, the landmark school desegregation ruling.
Biden listened carefully to Ryan, pounced often, and was primed to make points that Obama had failed to. He pushed back against Romney’s and Ryan’s loose talk about the failure of the administration to play a more active role in the Middle East, and Ryan rather extravagantly termed the recent tragedy in Benghazi “the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.” (Which drew one of Biden’s many looks of scorn.) Nor did Biden let Ryan escape his more radical proposals, despite Ryan’s attempts to fuzz them once he was selected by Romney to be his running mate. (It seems that the two men had not foreseen or worked out the difficulties to come because of their substantive differences.) Biden made it clear that Ryan was still advocating vouchers for Medicare. Biden put on display the two men’s generational differences in ways that played to his advantage. Though a shrewd, sophisticated, and highly knowledgeable man, Biden comes off as a throwback to the pols of another time. Biden is more Tip O’Neill than not only Barack Obama but just about any Democratic senator. He is one of the most authentic politicians in Washington—he really is who he appears to be: warm and decent and never forgetting his working class roots, approachable and easy; his expressions “God love you” and “malarkey” may be filigrees of the Irish pol characteristics he has chosen to emphasize, but his core is consistent.
In their debate one got the impression of one vice-presidential candidate speaking from knowledge and experience and the other from index cards. This is what an “ideas meteorite” such as Ryan relies on: numbers and index cards rather than knowledge, real-life experience, discernment, judgment. Having shot up quickly through the ranks of power in Washington, ideas men like Ryan tend to miss the texture and complexities of life that ground others in reality. And thus they can come off as soulless, as Ryan, with his detached proposals, did in the debate. Joe Biden is very grounded in reality.
Determined to not let Ryan get away with anything—to dismiss many of his points—Biden, not a subtle man, did patronize him a bit and smiled often, to suggest that Ryan wasn’t to be taken seriously. Biden did overdo this somewhat, and the Republicans complained almost unanimously after the debate that their candidate was treated rudely—the tender-hearted conservative Republicans of course abhor rudeness. But their making a big thing about Biden’s frequent smiling, their criticisms even of the moderator (a familiar effort at misdirection), were clear signs of how they thought the event had gone.