The debate was certainly livelier than the presidential one, with surprisingly quite substantive exchanges between the two participants. I think that this debate showed more clearly the differences between the two candidates, especially on domestic policy. You can watch it and read the transcript here
I think Joe Biden got the better of it. He had the right debater’s instinct of always putting the other person on the defensive and having to explain away their position. It was clear that he wanted to resurrect the message that has been so effective, that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan represent the interests of the wealthy and disdain everyone else and that they would put in place policies that would enrich the wealthy by taking from everyone else. His repeated invocation of Romney’s disdain for the 47% and Ryan’s for the 30%, his charge that the Medicare changes envisaged by them would cut the benefits for those who depend on it, hammered home that idea.
The lack of specifics in the Romney-Ryan budget plan became painfully obvious when Ryan was pressed for specifics as to what loopholes and deductions they would cut and all he could do was weakly reply that they would get together with Congress and work something out. The tactical error they have made is being very specific about the tax cuts they have in mind (20% across the board in the marginal rates) which makes for a straightforward calculation of how much revenue would be lost, which is $480 billion in the first year and $5 trillion over ten years. Once you have done that and also said that you know how to close that gap by eliminating other things, you are on the hook to lay those ideas out. And it is clear they cannot or will not. This exposes them to the charge that they only care about the tax cuts for the rich and I think Biden did very well on doing just that. I was glad to see Biden directly challenging the Romney-Ryan claim that they want to mainly help small business, by pointing out that 97% of small businesspeople earn less than $250,000 per year.
Ryan also seemed to veer between two extremes, between vague statements that lacked specifics and detailed anecdotes about people. After a while I was ready to yell “Enough with the anecdotes already!” Anecdotes that don’t support a specific policy decision are useless and I was sick of hearing stories about his hometown and its people. For a guy who repeatedly boasts that he is a ‘numbers guy’ who loves the details of policy, he was remarkably out-numbered, so to speak, by Biden who was quite impressive in his ability to rattle off statistics on practically every issue.
The foreign policy part of the debate was, as I expected, awful. Both of them work from the premise that the US has the right to tell other countries what to do and anyone who resists should be punished. They both fell over themselves proclaiming their undying love for Israel and trying to portray Iran as evil and how they would cause even more misery to the Iranian people by their crippling sanctions. It was disgusting to see Biden gloating over how US policies are ruining the Iranian economy and causing their currency to fall. It reminded me of Madeline Albright’s infamous comment that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children as a result of US-led sanctions was worth it in order to achieve US goals. These people make me sick.
While Romney has been attacking China, Ryan seemed to have a bee in his bonnet about Russia. He repeatedly accused the administration of ‘giving’ Russia a veto at the UN. Does he not know that Russia has a veto as part of the UN charter? Or was he saying that the US should not work through the UN? Biden did not call him out on this, presumably because he too does not want to remind people that international diplomacy, within or outside the UN, is a tricky business that requires taking the interests of other nations into account. It is much better politically to pander to those Americans who like to think that the US is, or should be, a colossus ruling over the world, ticking Russia and China off and telling them that they had better get in line or else. Pathetic. But when pressed by Biden for specifics on what Romney-Ryan would do differently, Ryan could not come up with anything substantive.
Biden seemed to be grinning a lot, especially early on. Whenever Ryan was speaking, he would look gleeful, as if he saw an opening to counterpunch and could not wait to get his turn to respond. And often he did not wait, interrupting Ryan repeatedly. I think this did put Ryan off-balance but I have no idea how well it will play with viewers. But Biden clearly seemed to be enjoying himself during the debate. Ryan, not so much.
The moderator Martha Raddatz was quite good for almost the entire time, asking some probing follow-up questions and allowing the debaters to spar while not allowing too much filibustering. But she tarnished her performance it at the end with three cloying ‘human interest’ questions.
Rather than ask them both directly what their position was with regard to abortion and contraception, she asked them to explain how they personally, as Catholics, came to have the views they hold on abortion. Who cares? (Once again, it was interesting that same-sex marriage did not arise as a topic, signaling that it is no longer a potent political issue.) Then she hauled out a story about a soldier who had said that he was dismayed with the tone of the campaign and what they would say to him. The third question, “If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?” was absolutely idiotic. The only honest answer to that is “Nothing”.
I have no idea what effect this debate will have on voters or the political chattering class. As usual, I wrote up my comments before reading the verdict of the pundits.