Now it’s Vice President Joe Biden’s turn. Maybe he can resuscitate the Democratic campaign by flashing the party’s red-meat issues that President Obama failed to mention in his initial confrontation with Mitt Romney. Nobody does it like Biden when it comes to connecting with the great swath of working-class voters from the union halls and the K-Mart blue light specials. Biden knows how to go for the gut with lunch-bucket issues.
Biden is the Administration’s ambassador to middle America. For Biden, this is ready-made stuff. He’ll be debating Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate and author of the budget that would slash funds for the elderly, the poor and students as well as “voucherize” Medicare and privatize Social Security. Romney has embraced Ryan’s budget plan although he lately is attempting to back away from his earlier endorsement wherein he described it as a “wonderful document.” Instead, Romney wants to de-fund PBS and decapitate Big Bird.
Biden is being prepped for the debate by Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th), who is the ranking Democrat on Ryan’s House Budget Committee and thoroughly familiar with Ryan’s thought processes and methods of presentation and debate. Van Hollen also served as a Democratic negotiator during budget deadlocks. Ryan was a member of the Bowles-Simpson Commission on debt reduction but refused to sign the commission’s recommendations but issued his own report instead. Theodore B. Olson, a high-powered Washington attorney and former solicitor general in the Bush Administration, is coaching Ryan.
Nothing has baffled political observers this election season more than Obama’s failure during the first debate to raise issues that have been central to the Obama campaign against Romney—Bain Capital, the Ryan budget, the do-nothing Congress, opposition to the auto industry bailout, outsourcing jobs to China, tax cuts for the rich, Romney’s characterization of 47 percent of Americans as moochers and transforming Medicare into a voucher system. Romney has since apologized for the 47-percent remark. Romney has had more positions than the Kama Sutra.
Obama blew his chance to close the deal on the election. Up to the night of the debate, the President led in virtually every poll, especially in the nine crucial battleground states. A majority of voters expected him to win by a wide margin, according to pre-debate polls. The debate was nearly a case of role reversal, a calculated strategy from an aggressive Romney against a passive, almost lethargic, Obama. Romney controlled the tone and the tactic of the debate and often filled the roles of candidate and moderator as well.
Romney engaged the television audience in a way that Obama didn’t, which is a necessary element since the Oprahfication of American politics. There has been speculation that Obama’s performance was a deliberate strategy to appear presidential and avoid the appearance of a street brawl. If that is the case, it was the wrong strategy. A more likely observation is that presidents are not used to being sharply questioned, challenged or attacked and Romney’s persistent assault got under Obama’s thin skin and knocked him off balance.
The Obama campaign was quick to make an overnight adjustment. On the very next day, Obama, refreshed and up to the task at hand, was out on the campaign trail slamming Romney and calling out the misrepresentations and outright lies of the debate the night before. He derided the “two Romneys”—the Romney on the campaign trail and the Romney in the debate—and sneered at his rival’s duplicity. Romney has displayed more personalities than Zelig.
Romney embraced virtually every issue that the Obama campaign has claimed and made them his very own successes. This was especially true of health care and tax reform, although, as usual, Romney was vague on details and often deliberately misleading and often downright wrong—another instance where neither Obama nor the moderator, Jim Lehrer, pressed him.
In the grammar of politics, style-points matter. As the debate evanesced into the ether, analysts were dissecting every moue, grimace, sneer, bowed head, nuance, cocked foot as well as parsing every sentence and judging paragraph structure. By those measures, Obama came up short. He appeared annoyed and peevish. Worse than being hammered in the debate is the brooding presence of the media (social and mainstream) which kept the unexpected embarrassment alive for days following the actual event. The day-after headlines were lethal. Even The New York Times compared Obama to Xanax.
Democrats are taking solace in statistics. A comparison by MSNBC, for example, showed that since TV debates began in 1960, five of six incumbent presidents were judged to have lost the first debate. To cite three examples of their handiwork: Jimmy Carter in 1980; Ronald Reagan in 1984; and George W. Bush in 2004.
But Obama nonetheless continues to be the luckiest politician alive. Just as everyone was piling on in the debate’s aftermath, the new job figures almost obliterated talk of his poor TV performance by dominating the political discourse. The numbers, which had been stuck above a red-lined eight percent, tumbled to a four year low—7.8 percent—giving the luster and solid evidence Obama’s been hoping for to his argument that the economy is improving measurably.
Biden, like Obama, Romney and Ryan, is prone to gaffes. (In fact, on the day following the debate, Biden publicly disputed the Administration’s tax proposal and directly contradicted the president’s position of the night before.) Often the White House takes immediate corrective action when Biden strays from the script. (Biden’s recent public gaffe was his statement that “the last four years have buried the middle class.”)
Nonetheless, Biden is the Administration’s attack dog, the campaign role usually assigned to vice presidents and one that Biden relishes. Biden has been in public office for nearly 40 years and he has been through all of the hellfires of politics, including two unsuccessful runs for president. His debate with Sarah Palin in 2008 was one of the memorable events of that campaign season.
Biden can probably explain the broad outlines of the Administration’s goals in a way that resonates more forcefully than Obama himself. And often he does it in an anecdotal manner which renders the telling all the more effective and personal. Even on this point Romney, who often displays the charisma of a cardboard cutout, outscored Obama with personal vignettes of encounters on the campaign trail. Obama often resorts to a kind of shorthand which leads to misinterpretation and contextual controversies.
Ryan, by contrast, is a self-admitted budget wonk who learned his supply-side economics from Jack Kemp and his self-interest politics from the writings of Ayn Rand, author of two of the clunkiest books in modern literature and one of the worst movies ever produced—Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
Ryan was chosen for the number two slot to appease the GOP’s Archie Bunker wing, which salivates over his slash-and-burn budget ideas and despises Obama. He is considered the intellectual Pied Pier of the conservative movement. His social policies are as rigid as his budget constraints (he co-sponsored a “personhood” amendment). The debate will illuminate whether Ryan’s knowledge is broad and deep or if he’s simply a one-trick pony.