Vice President Joe Biden gave the debate performance last night that a lot of Democrats were looking for from President Obama. He was aggressive and pointed, let nothing go unquestioned, and used all of the attack lines and avenues that Obama left on the table. That Republicans are trying to use this aggression against him shows you that they have nothing much to say about their own candidate and need to search for excuses outside the debate. Blaming Martha Raddatz is another tell.
Biden’s revealing of two letters written by Paul Ryan requesting stimulus funds, after he not only voted against but constantly ran down the stimulus from the day it passed, was a good, clean hit that has already yielded follow-on support about Ryan’s budget hypocrisy.
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a fiscal conservative and critic of federal handouts, has sought for his constituents in Wisconsin an expansion of food stamps, stimulus money, federally guaranteed business loans, grants to invest in green technology and money under President Barack Obama’s health care reform law.
Such requests are at odds with Ryan’s public persona as a small-government advocate and tea party favorite who has pledged to tighten Washington’s belt.
Politically, that was a good way to defuse criticism of the “green pork” in the stimulus, since Ryan tried to help get the pork to his constituents’ tables.
Another point that stuck out was during the conversation on Medicare and Social Security, where Ryan had to defend his prior policies of turning the guaranteed Medicare benefit into a voucher program. Only 11% of Americans understood the Ryan budget before the debate, and I think a few more understand it now. Biden, after the usual recitation of facts and figures, decided to appeal to Americans’ shared history about social insurance programs to make the sale:
BIDEN: These — look, these guys haven’t been big on Medicare from the beginning. Their party’s not been big on Medicare from the beginning. And they’ve always been about Social Security as little as you can do.
Biden, incidentally, noted that you could save money in Medicare by allowing it to bargain for prescription drugs, something that his Administration took off the table in the Affordable Care Act as part of their bargain with the pharmaceutical industry. He also did not answer a question about raising the Medicare eligibility age or the retirement age, taking the party line in opposition to vouchers and privatization while leaving maximum wiggle room for any deal down the road. So we’ll have to see if that appeal to shared history still works in a 21st-century environment with the Democratic Party we have.
Raddatz, a longtime foreign correspondent, devoted a substantial amount of the debate to foreign policy, including rare discussions in our political sphere of Afghanistan and Syria, in addition to the expected discussions on Iran and the Benghazi attack. Biden, the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fit squarely within a Washington consensus on these issues, touting “crippling sanctions” against Iran that seek to starve their people, for example, without bothering to mention that the opinion of the US intelligence community is that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon. But it’s good to note that Biden sees this consensus as saying “we will leave Afghanistan in 2014″ without hesitation, and with regards to Syria, that “the last thing we need is US troops in another war in the Middle East.” Ryan had to play catch-up on these issues, and he walked down a blind corner on Afghanistan when he criticized the Administration for pulling US troops out of the most dangerous areas. Biden basically chided him for wanting to expose US troops to more hazards when Afghans have replaced them and the mission has almost entirely been accomplished. In that case, why leave in 2014 and not now, would be the obvious rejoinder. But again, this was a circumscribed, Washington discussion of foreign policy issues, where it would be impolite to talk about special operations forces or drones.
Overall, a night that probably helped the Obama-Biden ticket politically. Biden played the attack dog and played it well.