12 October, 2012
Ok, I was wrong.
Joe Biden won the debate last night. Not on the merits, of course. But he won.
He won, in essence, by playing "rope-a-dope." He's an experienced debater; the far smarter Paul Ryan is not. Joe Ali essentially used all of his own time and half of Ryan's, interrupting, talking over his younger and less experienced opponent, scoring essentially meaningless zingers (often outright falsehoods, as in his claim to have voted against the Iran and Afghan wars; he voted for both). Following the Obama-Biden game plan, he kept repeating those whoppers about those fictitious tax increases for the middle class and tax cuts for the wealthy no matter what Ryan said. Essentially, Biden got in his talking points- and then devoted himself to preventing Ryan from effectively responding.
And Ryan- who, alas, simply lacks Biden's debating experience- played along. Oh, he kept remarkably on message, especially given Biden's tactics. But time and time again he let Biden rattle him and didn't close in and clinch the deal when he had Biden on the ropes. And somehow he never seemed to remain on the offensive even when he managed to take it.
When Biden followed the standard Democratic party line and denied history by saying that nobody had ever raised revenues by cutting taxes, Ryan correctly pointed out that it had in fact been done twice. "No, it's never been done," Biden replied.
Ryan started to explain that both Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had done it- but Biden slipped off the ropes with an aplomb Muhammed Ali would have envied. "Oh," he interrupted. " So you're Jack Kennedy?"
The line, of course, called to mind Lloyd Bensen's devastating response to Dan Quayle in 1988, even though it had absolutely nothing to do with what Ryan had said. But Ryan let himself be rattled- and let Biden off the ropes.
And another thing: Ryan should have listed those half-dozen studies which concluded that the American Tax Institute was wrong in saying initially that Romney's budget would necessitate a tax increase.
Biden could have been beaten. But it would have taken a debater as savvy and experienced as he himself is. It would have taken a laser-like focus which simply would have hammered home point after point and just not allowed Biden's dilatory tactics to get in the way. Sadly, Paul Ryan' s parents raised him too well for him to have been the man for the job.
Ryan's best moment- surely one planned for in advance- came when Biden brought up Mitt Romney's infamous remark about 47% of the American people being slackers. The congressman replied that Biden, of all people, should know that sometimes when you say something it doesn't quite come out the way you intend. The generally well-behaved audience responded with laughter and hoots.
And then Biden- clearly flustered- uncovered his chin for Ryan's uppercut by claiming that even when that happens, you always say what you actually mean.
Ryan had him at his mercy. I can hear almost hear it now: "What, Joe? You really meant it when you told that guy in the wheelchair to stand up and take a bow? You really meant it whan you said that Mr. Obama was 'the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy?' You really think that even if the adminstration does everything right, there's a thirty percent chance they'll get it wrong?
"What does that even mean?
"Maybe you're right, and Hillary really would have been a better pick for vice-president than you. But did you really mean that you can't go to a Dunkin' Donuts or a 7-11 unless you have an Indian accent? Did you really mean to make fun of that lady translating your remarks into sign language?"
It would have been a glorious moment. But alas, the inexperienced Ryan never swung.
Biden would have.
Oh. And one other thing: when Martha Radatz asked Ryan about the discrepancy Biden and Obama keep talking about between the tax cuts they advocate and the resultant lowering of revenue, would it really have been so hard for Ryan to have said, "Look, Martha. First of all, the Tax Policy Institute based that study on an inaccurate version of out plan, and when we corrected it they said that the numbers came a lot closer to adding up. Mr. Obama and Joe simply ignore that with their charge. And our numbers reflect the economic growth we believe our policies will generate, which will raise correspondingly more revenue- just as Kennedy and Reagan generated more revenue by stimulating the economy through tax cuts. So of course our numbers don't quite add up. They didn't add up for Kennedy or Reagan, either."
Instead, Ryan sort of aimed in that general direction, but never got it quite said. He really, really needed to.
Look. Paul Ryan will be fine. If Obama is re-elected, and Ryan is- as I expect at this point- the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, he'll do just fine in the debates. He won't have to face a candidate playing "rope-a-dope," and it won't be in an informal debate format that favors filibustering tactics and verbal slight-of-hand such as Biden employed. And he'll have last night's experience to draw on, and probably the experience of debating sharp people like Marco Rubio and Rob Portman and John Kasich in the primaries. And probably Rand Paul, too.
Even the network talking heads commented that Biden was so rude, disrespectful, and generally obnoxious that he probably turned off undecided voters even if he did win the debate on points. And ratings for the debate were down, anyway. I'm sure that the morale of the president's supporters got a boost from last night's debate, but I doubt that it will really have much of an impact on the dynamics of the race.
But next week's second presidential debate at Hofstra University is a different story. As we saw last week, Mitt Romney is a better debater than Barack Obama, just as Joe Biden is a better debater than Paul Ryan. But the format- a town meeting- plays to Obama's strengths, and his tactics will be a great deal closer to Biden's of last night than his own of a week ago.
The election may well end up being decided by which of the candidates manages to stay on the offensive, as Romney did last week and as Biden did last night.
I predict that whoever manages to best maintain the offensive will win the debate next Tuesday evening- and the presidency twenty-four days from now.