Vice President Joseph Biden of Delaware dropped the hammer on Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on Thursday, and it was a powerful thing to see.
Anyone who tells you the vice presidential debate was a tie, or that Mr. Ryan prevailed, is trying to sell you a diamond mine that ain’t worth a dime. The ultimate impact and import of what went down during Thursday’s debate won’t be immediately known, but the simple fact is beyond dispute: Joe Biden owned the night, and owned his opponent, in a way rarely seen in modern debate history.
It was, in every respect, just what the doctor ordered for the Democratic presidential campaign: a high-energy, aggressive and fact-laden stand taken by a battle-scarred party elder who, for all time, dispelled any and all preconceived notions that he is some half-addled gaffe generator who cannot be counted on when the chips are down. Joe Biden came to play Thursday night, and the public works employees of Danville, KY, will be spending the next couple of days sweeping up little pieces of Paul Ryan because of it.
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Biden – at times laconic, at times incredulous, at times simply pissed – gave a clinic on debate management over the course of 90 minutes. He left no stone unturned in attacking the weak points of his opponent’s arguments and general philosophy, handily managed to make Mitt Romney the absent and hopeless star of the show, and in the process delivered a rousing defense of both the Obama administration and Democratic Party principles that was deeply reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Biden’s presentation was, like Clinton’s, both folksy and factual, and – most important of all – he did not allow Mr. Ryan to slip even one lie into the conversation without covering it with bite-marks, bruises and blood.
The first question of the debate focused on the attack on the US consulate in Libya, and whether the whole affair amounted to what debate moderator Martha Raddatz described as a “massive intelligence failure.” The GOP has been worrying this particular bone for some time now, and the question was right in Mr. Ryan’s wheelhouse. He immediately denounced the Obama administration for its alleged lax security policy and intelligence regarding overseas missions like the one that absorbed the attack in Libya, a line of assault straight out of the Republican playbook.
Mr. Biden took in Ryan’s response, reared back, and laid waste: “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey, because not a single thing he said is accurate. Number one, this lecture on embassy security – the congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for, number one. So much for the embassy security piece. Number two, Governor Romney, before he knew the facts, before he even knew that our ambassador was killed, he was out making a political statement which was panned by the media around the world.”
Right out of the gate, Mr. Biden called a liar a liar – something his boss failed to do during his first turn at bat – and then tagged Ryan, along with the entire House GOP, for gutting the funding for embassy security, before concluding with a reminder of Mitt Romney’s idiotic, embarrassing, ill-conceived response to the Libya attack…which was, lest we forget, to condemn the victims for hating America before the facts of the situation (and the death toll) were clear.
And that was just the beginning.
Around 24 minutes into the debate, moderator Raddatz steered the conversation toward the current unemployment level, and asked of both candidates, “Can you get unemployment to under 6 percent, and how long will it take?” Mr. Biden had the first bite of the apple, and delivered an aria that shook the glass in the windows.
I don’t know how long it will take. We can and we will get it under 6 percent. Let’s look at – let’s take a look at the facts. Let’s look at where we were when we came to office. The economy was in free fall. We had — the great recession hit; 9 million people lost their job; $1.7 – $1.6 trillion in wealth lost in equity in your homes, in retirement accounts for the middle class.
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 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.”
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. My friend (Rep. Ryan) recently in a speech in Washington said, “33 percent of the American people are takers.”
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. 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.”
It’s about time they take some responsibility here. 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.
They’re pushing the continuation of a tax cut that will give an additional $500 billion in tax cuts to 120,000 families. And they’re holding hostage the middle class tax cut because they say we won’t pass — we won’t continue the middle class tax cut unless you give the tax cut for the super wealthy. It’s about time they take some responsibility.
In one fell swoop: a nod to the successful auto industry bailout, a hit on Romney’s 47% doctrine, a hit on Ryan’s 33% doctrine, a hit on the Norquist anti-tax pledge, a hit on Romney’s nebulous tax history, a reminder of the GOP’s calamitous record, a hit on the GOP’s desire to continue the Bush tax cuts, all of which came in a few savage minutes…and all of which was delivered with the heat and passion of someone who is legitimately angry about the matters at hand. Mr. Biden, in this small space, accomplished more than Mr. Obama did in his own 90-minute opportunity, and the simple force of it was palpable.
Mr. Biden was not done, however. Minutes later, on the subject of Detroit in particular and job growth in general, the vice president enjoyed what may well go down in history as his finest moment in politics.
I’ve never met two guys who are more down on America across the board. We’re told everything’s going bad. There are 5.2 million new jobs, private-sector jobs. If they’d get out of the way, if they’d get out of the way and let us pass the tax cut for the middle class, make it permanent, if they get out of the way and pass the jobs bill, if they get out of the way and let us allow 14 million people who are struggling to stay in their homes because their mortgages are upside down, but they never missed a mortgage payment…
Just get out of the way.
Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility.
And, by the way, they talk about this Great Recession as if it fell out of the sky, like, “Oh, my goodness, where did it come from?” It came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on the credit card, a trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy. I was there. I voted against them. I said, no, we can’t afford that. And now, all of a sudden, these guys are so seized with the concern about the debt that they created.
It was at this point that Paul Ryan began to look, for all the world, eerily like Mr. Bean. His reliance on campaign talking points wore raggedly thin, and as Mr. Biden gained strength and intensity, Mr. Ryan began to shrink. A welcome discussion of foreign policy regarding Afghanistan, Syria and Iran was transformed into an international policy seminar delivered by a guy who’s been around the block a few times to a guy who didn’t seem to know where the block was to begin with.
The situation did not improve when Mr. Ryan was pressed, by the moderator and the vice president, to provide even a sliver of detail on how his campaign’s magical tax/budget proposals could ever be reconciled with basic mathematics in this dimension of space and time. He failed. A similarly devastating exchange came when Mr. Ryan was pressed to explain his plan to essentially obliterate Social Security and Medicare. It did not, in the end, go well.
The final act came when Raddatz put the abortion issue on the table, and asked both candidates to speak personally on the matter. Mr. Ryan made no bones about the intent of his campaign to end choice by stating bluntly, “The policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.” In a bewildering aside, he further denounced Obama and Biden for attacking freedom of religion through their support of the availability of birth control.
When it came time for Mr. Biden to respond, he did so in a simple, elegant and utterly devastating fashion: “With regard to abortion, I accept my church’s opinion – position – on abortion. Life begins at conception, that is the church’s decision. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews. I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people, women, that they can’t control their body.”
Game, set, match.
Before the night was even half over, both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh had tweeted that Mr. Biden was “bullying” Mr. Ryan. If this is any indication of how the GOP intends to spin the debate, and it surely is, the right will seek to make hay out of Biden’s demonstrably emotional approach to the debate, if for no other reason than to distract from the actual substance of the event. Mr. Biden laughed, he sighed, he shook his head, he raised his hands to the heavens in disgust, and he leveled an angry, accusatory finger at his opponent more than once.
Biden was heated, and animated, and was not shy about telegraphing the disdain he felt for his opponent’s arguments. Of course he will be criticized for that. Of course he will. Elements of the “news” media will certainly try to boil off the meat and focus on the dreck, for no other reason than to make their jobs easier, and that narrative will be promoted with vigor by the GOP’s spin machine.
If that becomes the final takeaway from Thursday’s debate – despite all the substance provided, despite all the facts deployed, despite all the heartily-welcomed challenges traded back and forth – then the political “news” media has officially lost any and all purchase on usefulness in this republic. What happened on Thursday night was nothing more or less than the best Vice Presidential debate in American history, and was the best debate – period – any of us have seen in a long, long time. If it is not reported this way, in detail, the political “news” media should be collectively shoved into a shot-weighted barrel and dropped into the Marianas Trench.
As for the ultimate impact Thursday’s debate will have on the overall race, only time will tell. The usual metrics used to measure and predict election trends over the last several decades do not apply this time around. There are simply too many unique factors at play in 2012 – the nation’s first Black president and the impact of racial sentiment, the gargantuan impact of the money unleashed by the Citizens United decision, the ever-increasing impact of the internet and the digital age on what was for so long a demonstrably analog political process – to take for granted the idea that because something has happened so many times before automatically means it will happen the same way this time around.
It was axiomatic to believe that no single debate could move the numbers of a presidential election more than a point or two…until the numbers went sideways by as much as 14 points after last week’s presidential debate. It was axiomatic to believe that vice presidential debates hardly ever matter at all…but now? In this new day and age? Was Joe Biden’s performance enough to end, if not repair, a long, bad week of reversals for the Obama re-election campaign? We will find out soon enough.
This much is certain: what took place on Thursday night in Kentucky was a clinic, a deconstruction, a masterpiece, a thunderclap. The sun came up on Friday morning to shine upon a world that will never, ever underestimate Joe Biden again. For those who needed what he gave, it was a joyful noise indeed.