Robert Shrum on the Vice Presidential Debate: Biden’s Win Was a Big F@$&ing Deal
Andrew Sullivan can come back off the ledge
Joe did it.
He dominated the debate. He hammered Ryan-Romney on vote-driving issues. He exposed the Ryan budget as a deception designed to trick people into voting against themselves—mathematically impossible; a socially and even morally unacceptable charter to enrich the wealthy and rob the middle class, the needy, students who have to pay for college, and seniors who have to pay for prescription drugs and nursing home care. And in Thursday’s debate, he was pre-eminently Joe: engaged, accessible, the guy from Scranton speaking the common language of life—not the arcane vocabulary of the legislative thicket. Again and again, he looked into the camera and talked straight to the American people.
Paul Ryan wasn’t quite the guy from Ayn Rand and Price Waterhouse; he had obviously trained hard, and he tried hard to connect—but he was tripped up. As usual, he lied. Biden called him “incredible” and he was—and called him on his “malarkey” without sounding shrill or over the top. He slapped down Ryan’s cheap shot on Libya and he won the Iran back-and-forth hands down. The exchanges on national security pitted a tutored novice against a vice president whose command of foreign policy is second nature, and who is thoroughly prepared to be commander-in-chief. After all, he’s been “Bibi’s friend for 39 years.”
Ryan was trapped—or trapped himself—into possibly prolonging the war in Afghanistan beyond 2014. He sounded as if he yearned to send in more American troops to “do the job” rather than turning it over to the Afghans. This was pure neo-con foreign policy—and it’s a political disaster for the Republicans. Here and on Syria, Ryan simply ran out of talking points and was soon in over his head.
Biden also prevailed hands down on the economy, on the auto industry, on Medicare and Social Security, on tax breaks for the wealthy. On how to pay for his proposals, Ryan couldn’t even offer up fuzzy math. Across the board, he had no math. He attacked the defense sequester—a technical word for cuts, as Biden observed—that Ryan himself had voted for. The Vice President held Ryan to account, and he retreated to bromides about strength.
Ryan and Romney were left holding the extremist grab bag of hostility toward women. Ryan bobbed and weaved, but people know now that he would prefer to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest. That’s not the Romney policy, Ryan pleaded—Romney would just outlaw abortion in all other cases. There’s a compelling appeal to America’s women! It will widen the gender gap at a time when the GOP already confronts an African-American chasm and a degree of unprecedented Hispanic alienation that together make it nearly impossible to claim the White House—no matter how frantically, transparently and brazenly Romney maneuvers to convert himself into multiple choice Mitt.
Thanks to the moderator Martha Raddatz , the vice-presidential debate wasn’t a Lehrer-limited zone confined to the concerns of older white men. Ryan had to defend a cul-de-sac on social issues far to the right of the mainstream—something the Republican standard bearer emphatically wants to avoid. It’s the price he paid for his nomination, but a poison pill for November.
The debate wasn’t a rout; few such exchanges are. But Ryan lost clearly enough that Republican spin-meisters were reduced to jumping up and down about Biden’s smile. The spin was pathetic—and the spinners just aren’t going to get away with recycling their tactic of focusing on Al Gore’s sighs. Are Democrats supposed to respond by focusing on Ryan’s water gulping, which fell just short of a gargle? All this is beside the point: Biden was just too commanding and convincing.
His victory was typified by his vivid rebuke about Romney’s 47 percent: “These people are my mom and dad—the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax…I’ve had it up to here with this notion [of] 47 percent.” It was a memorable moment—and contrary to the President’s apparent disdain, such moments matter.
In sum, Biden dismantled the faux moderation of Romney’s play-acting last week. On question after question, the Vice President articulated and embedded a definition of the race that cut sharply for Democrats. At the end, the dividing line was the one the Obama campaign has drawn for months: who fights for the middle class, and who favors the few? Who’s on your side?
Biden stopped or even reversed the movement toward the GOP ticket that in any event seems to have subsided in recent days. He redeemed Obama’s debate performance last week—and next week, the President has to match his running mate’s performance.
But before turning to that, and assessing how it fits into the fundamental structure of the race, it’s only fair to give Joe Biden his due—not only as a debater, but as a running-mate. Caricatured in the press as gaffe-prone, he was spot-on against Ryan—and Biden has been an incisive, powerful influence inside the White House in the withdrawal from Iraq, the shift toward drones and special forces to combat terrorism, and the implementation of the Recovery Act that staved off a second Great Depression. On the campaign trail, he’s an invaluable presence in blue-collar states like Pennsylvania and Ohio—and a reassuring one for Jewish voters in Florida.
Biden is as real and blunt as Harry Truman—and, like Truman, he gets criticized for his own tendency to “give ‘em hell” or be caught on an open mike saying that health reform is “a big f@$&ing deal.” His instinct for communicating with what FDR called “the common man” equals his grasp of complex issues. Some suggested last summer that Biden ought to be dumped from the ticket—and Republicans were eager to stir the speculation. Instead Biden was there in the debate to deliver this challenge—which Ryan couldn’t answer: “Can you guarantee that no one making less than $100,000” wouldn’t lose “their mortgage deduction?” Ouch! Maybe Republicans feared this as much as Democrats have now welcomed it, with a resounding chorus of relief.
But it is almost inherent in the Democratic character that relief swiftly gives way to apprehension. Democrats are already thinking, fretting, asking: How will the President do next Tuesday? Nobody has ever come out ahead betting against Obama—and I wouldn’t bet on a replay of that first debate in Denver. As I wrote last week, Obama’s a fourth-quarter player who is at his best when the pressure is on.
It is now. I also argued last week that the electoral geography of 2012 wouldn’t experience a tectonic shift after Denver. It hasn’t. With the Romney bounce dwindling after the first few days, the president—despite some tightening—is competitive or ahead in virtually all the swing states. The one event that could upend that is an encore from a passive, disengaged Obama. He knows that. He doesn’t need a lot of advice from what his political adviser David Plouffe once called the “bedwetters.” He understands what he has to do—and how to do it. So expect President Obama, not Professor Obama to show up for his town meeting encounter with Romney.
Assuming that happens, post-debate there are three factors that will shape the stretch run of this race—and they all point to Democratic victory.
First, the economy—which the Republicans not only assumed would work in their favor, but which they worked relentlessly to make worse—has now and finally turned in the President’s favor.
There was last Friday’s drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent—which conjured up the humbug that the figures were phony from the addled former head of General Electric Jack Welch, along with the usual conspiracy theorists in the GOP who henceforth could properly be denominated as “Welchers.” No one outside Limbaughland or Trumpville, Potemkin villages where no one will vote for Obama anyway, credited the humbug. But the episode did have a bonus: Welch was provoked to decamp from his Fortune column after the magazine dissed his comments and a follow-up story reported that at G.E. he had destroyed 100,000 jobs. No wonder he’s for Romney—they’re kindred spirits.
Next, on the morning of the Biden-Ryan debate, new figures showed first-time unemployment claims at the lowest level since February 2008—and home foreclosures down to 2007 levels. The Romney-rooters questioned and quarreled with the reports. They could also take consolation from the half-baked notion that “economic conditions are baked in…by the summer, and it doesn’t much matter what happens after that.”
But today economic confidence is rising and so is the President’s job approval—erasing Romney’s advantage on who would do better on jobs and growth. Reality is reinforcing Bill Clinton’s brilliant rhetoric at the Democratic National Convention about the progress that is being made, the time it takes to finish the job, and the danger of reversing course in mid-recovery. Nate Silver, the statistical phrenologist who downgraded the Obama’s chances to 66.8 per cent amid the fallout from the Denver debate, nonetheless warned in his New York Times FiveThirtyEight.com, “Keep an Eye on Election Fundamentals.” One of them, he insisted, is the current improvement in the economy…”which is [in] line with Mr. Obama being a very modest favorite.”
More than modest if you count the issue terrain that’s emerging from the debates. And that’s the second factor that boosts Obama’s odds over a long term that now consists of just four short weeks. Even during the President’s desiccated initial outing, he pinned his opponent to the whipping post of Medicare versus Vouchercare. The polls in Florida are divided over the leader and in most of them, the margins are close. But a new survey from the University of North Florida puts Obama four points up, reporting that he was more trusted than Romney on Medicare by 51 to 37 percent. Expect the Obama campaign to push hard on this. Expect a similar push on equal pay for women and immigration reform. And in the Midwest, look for the President to bear down on saving the auto industry and the contrast between creating jobs there and Romney’s record of outsourcing—and supporting tax incentives for shipping jobs overseas.
Across the board—on the Republican education cuts, on central elements of health care like coverage for pre-existing conditions, on tax fairness—the majority of voters agree with the President. And all the contrasts advance the choice he poses: do we build prosperity by strengthening the middle class or by trickle down from the top?
The third factor is that Obama has an electoral-college advantage and a decided organizational edge. Romney has to come close to running the table in the swing states to reach 270 electoral votes. If he triages one or two after deciding he can’t take them, he will have to carry everything else—the choice and the dilemma that we faced in the 2004 Kerry campaign. Moreover, if the battlegrounds are close, it’s hard to see how the Republicans will compete with an Obama ground game that—despite the sudden claims of Romneyland—is wider, longer, more deeply rooted, and far better-financed.
The impact is already being felt. The President’s campaign is driving turnout in the early voting underway in many states. In Ohio, for example, the NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll reports that 18 percent of respondents have now cast their ballots, two-thirds of them for Obama. Superior organization opens up another possibility—and even a likelihood: the so-called enthusiasm gap—say among Latinos or younger voters—can be narrowed by a field operation that reaches and persuades more of them to go to the polls.
If the first debate wasn’t a game changer, it was a lost and precious opportunity. With his September bounce, the President could have effectively put the race away instead of giving Romney a bounce of his own. But in politics, stuff happens—even to the best of politicians.
And something important just happened in the vice-presidential face-off.: Joe Biden let Democrats cheer again. Like FDR, he is “an old campaigner who loves a good fight.” For voters, he laid out the differences that matter in their lives. And he forged a path for Obama to rebound next Tuesday—and then for their campaign to put the pedal to the electoral metal of their definitional, demographic and organizational ascendancy.
Yes, Joe, it was a big f@$&ing deal.