Saturday, October 13, 2012

Biden-Ryan: The mensch wins

WHEN HISTORIANS and political studies students and loudmouths like me look back on the 2012 presidential campaign, they’ll watch for the pivot points that occurred before Election Day, the things that, in retrospect, affected the outcome on Election Day.

We got one of those from Centre College in Danville, Ky., on Thursday night, the night when the Republican congressman from Wisconsin became the unwitting customer of the Joseph R. Biden Clock Cleaning Company.

It was the same night that, by way of articulating the policies of any Romney-Ryan administration on a woman’s right to the self-determination of her own body, Paul Ryan effectively alienated women voters in the United States, the cohort of the American electorate that may well determine the outcome of this election.

◊ ◊ ◊

They were what they needed to be: able proxies for the men at the top of their tickets, reliable ambassadors for policy on the one hand and proposals on the other. Vice President Biden’s direct, voluble, plain-spoken approach — like his boss, he wasn’t afraid to make a habit of looking directly into the camera — contrasted with Ryan’s technocratic, data-driven style, more earnest and willfully implacable.

The early flash poll scorecards were split: CBS News’ flash survey gave Biden a clear win by 19 points (50 to 31), but a CNN/ORC flash poll gave Ryan an edge of a win, 44 to 48. But later surveys cemented the first impressions: that Vice President Biden’s compelling blend of energy and experience carried the night. “It was a man against a boy,” said Ed Schultz on MSNBC.

And consistent with a tenet of “The Art of War” — a battle is won or lost before it is ever fought — Ryan was also wounded by his own campaign’s policies. To the extent that Ryan said the RomneyRyan ticket agreed with various policies and plans that the Obama administration has already undertaken or proposed, the advantage had to go to Biden, the representative of the administration that put those policies and plans in place.

Nothing undercuts a challenger’s claim to election like proposing to do what the incumbent already does.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE NIMBLE, engaged, righteously aggressive moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, opened with the issue of Libya, and her recognition of the fact that, “one month ago tonight, on the anniversary of 9/11, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other brave Americans were killed in a terrorist attack in Benghazi. The State Department has now made clear, there were no protesters there. It was a pre-planned assault by heavily armed men. Wasn't this a massive intelligence failure, Vice President Biden?”

“What is was, it was a tragedy, Martha,” Biden said before expressing the administration’s commitment to finding the ones who killed the Americans in Benghazi, and going on offense against Team Romney for its positions on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ryan seemed to take an early round by pointing out the inconsistencies of information about those responsible for the attack on the U.S. Consulate — the classic who-knew-what-and-when interrogatory. “It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack,” Ryan said.

“Look, if we're hit by terrorists we're going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack. Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him. Shouldn't we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi, a place where we knew that there was an al-Qaida cell with arms? This is becoming more troubling by the day.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Now, with respect to Afghanistan, the 2014 deadline, we agree with a 2014 transition," Ryan said.  “But what we also want it to do is make sure that we're not projecting weakness abroad, and that's what's happening here. This Benghazi issue would be a tragedy in and of itself, but unfortunately it's indicative of a broader problem. And that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more chaotic, and us less safe.”

But Biden responded well on the Libya question, faulting Ryan on his own voting record. “With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey,” he said. “The congressman here cut embassy security,” he said, a reference to the fact that, as reported by The Washington Post, “House Republicans reduced administration requests for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012.” And under the Ryan budget, embassy security would lose $400 million more.

Despite his jingo bluster, Ryan was undercut on this vital international matter by his party’s votes, and his own. He got hammered again with a more direct exchange about the Afghan exit:

BIDEN DEFENDED the Obama administration’s rescue of the auto industry, something of deep importance to the people of swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“We knew we had to act for the middle class. We immediately went
 out and rescued General Motors. We went ahead and made sure that we
 cut taxes for the middle class. And in addition to that, when that, 
when that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, ‘No, let Detroit 
go bankrupt.’ We moved in and helped people refinance their homes.
Governor Romney said, ‘No, let foreclosures hit the bottom.’”

And then Biden Went There — invoked the issue of the 47 percent, the percentage of Americans that Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, infamously said didn’t care about their own lives.

“But it shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of 
the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own
 lives,” Biden said. Then in a reference to Ryan himself: “My friend recently in a speech in Washington said 30 percent
 of the American people are takers."

◊ ◊ ◊

“These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my 
neighbors,” Biden said. “They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in
 his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are 
living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting 
in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, ‘not paying any tax.’”

“I've had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent — it's
 about time they take some responsibility here. And instead of signing 
pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to 
contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a 
pledge saying to the middle class, ‘we're going to level the playing 
field; we're going to give you a fair shot again; we are going to not
 repeat the mistakes we made in the past by having a different set of
 rules for Wall Street and Main Street, making sure that we continue to
 hemorrhage these tax cuts for the super wealthy.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

THIS KIND of thing, this hoisting of Ryan on his own rhetorical petards, happened more than once. The vice president, for example, laughed at Ryan for his past and frequent attacks on the $830 billion Obama stimulus, reminding him that he requested stimulus funding for his own state.

“I love my friend here," Biden said. “I'm not allowed to show letters here, but go on our Website. He sent me two letters saying, by the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?"

“You did ask for stimulus money, correct?” Raddatz asked Ryan.

“On two occasions we, we, we advocated for constituents
 who were applying for grants. That's what we do. We do that for all 
constituents who are ...”

Biden smiled. “I love that, I love that,” he said, laughing. “This is such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying -- writes the Department of Energy a letter — saying ‘the reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.’ His words. And now he's sitting here looking at me.”

“I wish he would just tell the — be a little more candid.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There were other unforced errors, the kind that originated from Romney campaign policy. Ryan said his ticket agreed with the Obama administration on sanctions against Iran, on placing no troops in Syria, and on the 2014 Afghan timeline. All that was counterproductive enough.

But the most damage done to Ryan was on abortion and women’s reproductive rights. The positions taken by Biden and Ryan on these matters brought the positions of their respective parties and party philosophies into sharp relief. The contrasts couldn’t be more obvious; for RomneyRyan, those contrasts couldn’t be more problematic.

When Raddatz asked about their personal views of abortion, and those views' proximity to the intersection of faith and national law, Ryan said: “I don't see how a person can separate their public life
 from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in
 everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the
 vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

“Now, you want to ask basically why I'm pro-life? It's not
 simply because of my Catholic faith. That's a factor, of course. But
it's also because of reason and science.

“… Now I believe that life
 begins at conception. That's why, those are the reasons why I'm pro-life. Now I 
understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don't
agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will
be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest and life 
of the mother.”

Later, Raddatz followed up. “If
 the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that
abortion should remain legal be worried?

Ryan sighed heavily. “We don't think that unelected judges should make this
decision; that people through their elected representatives in
reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should 
make this determination.”

◊ ◊ ◊

RYAN’S RUBICON statement was measured and principled, no less than Romney’s “47 percent” Boca Raton credo. And just like that statement, Ryan’s views on abortion, so clearly distilled, can be expected to have repercussions. Big time. It was a direct repudiation of Roe v. Wade and an implicit statement of support for its repeal — a repeal accelerated, no doubt, by the Supreme Court Justices a Romney administration would appoint to do exactly that.

In the days to come, Ryan’s statement will be perceived as an attack on women’s reproductive rights — hand in glove with the actions and statements of various Republican jurassics on women’s rights, from Virginia Gov. Bob (Ultrasound) McDonnell to Rep. Todd (Legitimate Rape) Akin. And that is a huge problem for Team Romney.

By accident or by design, Paul Ryan locked Mitt Romney to this severely conservative position as foundational to his campaign’s identity from here on in. The 62 million women of childbearing age in the United States couldn’t ask for a clearer, sharper indicator of what Romney — and Ryan, one of Congress’ most ardent anti-abortion legislators — would do to their lives if they ever reach the White House.

It’s impossible to overstate the damage that RomneyRyan’s position is likely to cause the campaign as it tries to widen its appeal to women voters. Shortly after the debate, Cecile Richards, the director of Planned Parenthood, told MSNBC that “this is what women needed to hear tonight. This gender gap, which has been very strong in favor of the president, I think we’ll continue to see it grow.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Biden, by contrast, took the more practical course, the more realistic and enlightened stance separating his personal position from the law on the books.

“I accept my church’s position on abortion . . . Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here. ...

“I, I do not believe that we 
have a right to tell other people that women they can't control 
their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor. In my 
view and the Supreme Court, I'm not going to interfere with that.

◊ ◊ ◊

AFTER THE first Obama-Romney debate, the prevailing opinion was that Romney won, but that was only according to the shallow, pugnacious metrics of debate watchers for whom substance meant little, or nothing at all. They came looking for blood on the floor, and nothing else.

A good debate is the clash of two capable weapons testing their own limits and those of an adversary. The fact that Obama didn’t use the rhetorical weapon everyone expected (maybe including even Obama) doesn’t mean that weapon didn’t have a value. Obama’s used his weapons of argument before, against Hillary Clinton and John McCain during the 2008 campaign. But if debating is a balance of heat and light, ask yourself: How much more light did Romney provide on his campaign’s credibility after the debate than was there before? How much more do we know about Romney as potential president now than we did before?

Who won, who lost? You can say what you will. President Obama brought a scalpel to a knife fight. Biden brought a knife. And a baseball bat.

◊ ◊ ◊

Where Biden talked about what distinguishes the Obama White House from the RomneyRyan ticket, Ryan told the American people how much the RomneyRyan ticket agrees with what the Obama administration is doing already.

Where Paul Ryan brought an air of didactic professionalism and a smirk apparently made permanent by cosmetic surgery, Biden brought emotional nuance and policy-based fire to the Danville debate. Ryan talked at or to the American people. Joe Biden talked of and with the American people.

He was flustered at times, talked himself into an oratorical cul-de-sac time and again, then backed out and took a different road to the same destination. Ordinarily, this is death for a debater, except for one thing: We know Joe Biden. He’s a known quantity to the American people.

The gravitas Biden wields in the public life has less to do, ironically, with the office of Vice President and more to do with a compelling biography, a long standing as a champion of populist causes, and a career in public service that began when he was first elected to the United States Senate ... when Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan was less than three years old.

That’s why Ryan, lambasting Obama at one point in the debate, may have betrayed more than he intended when he said: “You see, if you don't have a good record to run on, then you
 paint your opponent as someone to run from.”

He has, sadly, no idea how right he is.

Image credits: Biden, Ryan and Raddatz: Debate pool. Stevens: State Department (public domain). Fighting in East Paktika, Afghanistan: Associated Press. GM logo: © 2012 General Motors. Akin: Todd Akin for Senate campaign Web site.

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