Politics & Media
Oct 16, 2012, 03:19AM

Joe Biden and Mary Matalin Have Crash Helmets, Paul Krugman Doesn't

And Mitt Romney did say that about not getting bin Laden.

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I liked Joe Biden razzing Paul Ryan in their debate, but I didn't like Mary Matalin calling Paul Krugman a liar during a TV show they were on. Matalin acted like a mean drunk, Biden like a happy one. Biden was shouting down a lie, Matalin was getting back at someone for knowing more than she did.

When Biden shouted, “That's a bunch of malarkey!” it was because Ryan had just said, “We should not be imposing these devastating defense cuts, because what that does when we equivocate on our values, when we show that we're cutting our own defense.” Like we should never cut defense because of how it would look. Biden then launched into a defense of the administration on embassy security, saying Ryan had cut spending for it by $300 million from what the administration wanted. Fact checkers say the difference was $263 million, and not all the money was for securing embassies, but close enough. The administration wanted more; Ryan and the House Republicans gave it less.

Whereas when Matalin said Krugman was “hardly credible on calling somebody else a liar,” her chief exhibit was that Krugman said Ryan's Medicare plan was a voucher plan. But that's what it is. “It is a voucher plan!” protested Krugman, trapped in Matalin's path. (A few days later he happily noted on his blog that Paul Ryan once called the plan a “defined contribution sort of voucher system.”)

Agonizing metaphor. Biden and Matalin were born with crash helmets. They blam through proceedings, most notably their TV appearances. Somebody who's more normal, like Krugman, has to expect a few moments where he'll pop his eyes and think, “Did she really just say that?” Personally, I'm glad Krugman's there. My impression of the proceedings (this was on ABC's This Week) was that he spoke up clearly and well, and that the panel listened to him. Even after Matalin launched, he managed to pick up again.

But it's clear that he's a man without a crash helmet. His face quivers a little when he realizes he's speaking over someone else. Put it like this: When Krugman realizes that Jonathan Karl is getting a thought out, he doesn't just stop talking, he goes through an uncomfortable little reset. He tries to fit his face back together and get his shoulders where they should be—like “Oh shit, what do I do now?” I agree that this points to good manners on Krugman's part: He doesn't want to be the guy that's always piping up. But it also points to an uncomfortable side-corner of reality, one where some of us live but Biden and Matalin have never been.

A lot of people have to fake their way through social encounters, learn the protocol and hope we don't wind up with a foot out of place. For one reason or another, to one degree or another, that is our state, and some of us feel like idiots when our foot isn't where it should be. Not so for Matalin and Biden—don't ask them about their damn feet, they're busy. And for the past 30 years our televised political life has been geared to their type. It started with The McLaughlin Group and the Reagan debates, the belief that political news was best analyzed by shouting and that debates were meant to produce “moments,” not policy comparisons. It's been a busy few decades ever since.

Biden blooper! Joe Biden made a blooper in the debate after all. He didn't say Franklin Roosevelt went on the television, but he did say the Great Recession was caused by deficit spending. Biden saw a shiny object and went for it. He pointed at Paul Ryan, that fiscal hypocrite, and said this man's voting record right here caused the bad times: “This man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on the credit card, a trillion-dollar tax cut for a—very wealthy.”

True about Ryan and how the House Republicans have voted. Not true about where the recession came from. This is where: Much of the private population went into hock based on shoddily valued assets. Everybody's bluff got called and suddenly there was no money, just debt—private debt that has been sitting atop us ever since. If federal overspending were the problem, interest rates would be a lot higher and cutting the budget would be the administration's must-do, crash priority, not a long-term goal with a lot of caterpillar steps between now and realization. In short, Ryan would be right about the big things and Biden would be wrong.

Biden's saving grace in this matter is that nobody gives a shit. The moment was there and it popped. It was a good one: He threw his arms up to the heavens and brought a satisfying sort of elementary justice down on Ryan's head. Liberal partisans could say, “It wasn't the budget votes, it was allowing Wall Street and the banks to go crazy, but that's the kind of thing Ryan wants because he's full of that Ayn Rand bullshit, so now he's getting called out.” Meanwhile, independents could take a moment to reflect on whether a lawmaker's track record can be different from his voting record. Mr. Ryan talks a good game, but look at what he did… And Republicans could complain about Martha Raddatz and say she was letting Biden get away with undue noisemaking.

But point out that Biden was talking just as if his opponent were right? That's getting into the weeds. Professional nitpickers are the only ones who would talk about it. So Biden's blooper never becomes a gaffe. (Things played very differently in my arguments with my brother when we were kids. Misstep on fundamentals and you heard about it for the rest of the day and possibly your life.)

Biden fact-check. Did Mitt Romney say that he wouldn't go out of his way to get Osama bin Laden? Here's how Biden quoted him: “He said, I wouldn't move heaven and earth to get bin Laden.” In context, Romney was saying he'd try to bring down all of global jihad. But so what? Consider his words: “I think, I wouldn't want to overconcentrate on bin Laden. He's one of many, many people who are involved in this global jihadist effort. He's by no means the only leader.” Per Romney, the great global fight was supposed to be something done instead of getting bin Laden, not along with getting him. Somebody could defend that choice, but Biden was 100 percent right in saying it was the choice Romney made.

Here's something else a couple of fact-check sites pointed at. Biden said at least twice that personal income tax rates are going up only for millionaires and higher. When the administration worked out these things, Biden did want $1 million in personal income to be the threshold. Barack Obama decided otherwise and the figure is $200,000 for a single filer and $250,000 for a couple. Biden's best defense is to whittle down the damage. In the debate Biden said “millionaires.” How many people making $200,000 or more a year are not millionaires? Some, so he's wrong to that extent, but we're not talking about a lot of people.

Democrats have to spend so much sweat getting people to see that the “small business” tax category isn't just the corner pharmacy, it's hedge funds and millionaires (actual millionaires, such as George W. Bush with his lumber business). If only we could make millionaire our own reversible expression, but we can't. Unlike “small business,” “millionaire” has a meaning that begins only at possession of a million dollars. 


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