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William Rivers Pitt: Hey, Joe

For the moment, all eyes are focused on tonight’s vice presidential debate in Kentucky.

During a Wednesday morning radio interview with host Tom Joyner, President Obama made the following observation about his first debate with Mitt Romney last week: “I think it’s fair to say I was just too polite.”

Gee, you think?

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A week later, and the point has been clearly made about the degree to which Mr. Obama’s poor showing in that debate has damaged his campaign’s standing. According to pretty much every available poll, an entire Summer and early Fall’s worth of gains were wiped away in one 90-minute span. At a minimum, according to Nate Silver of the New York Times, Mr. Obama’s post-convention bounce has been erased. Political debates are part of a candidate’s job, and it is pretty damned amazing to witness what happens when the President of the United States decides he doesn’t feel like working on a night when more than 70 million people are watching.

There was more to it than that, of course. Mr. Obama was plainly put off by the tsunami of pure falsehood pouring from the gob of his opponent. Some have pointed to a debate tactic known as the Gish Gallop to explain what Mr. Romney pulled last Wednesday. To wit, when you spew an enormous volume of outright lies, your opponent becomes incapable of countering them all. Mr. Obama was clearly left flat-footed and tongue-tied by what happened, and I among many others seethed in frustration because he utterly failed to call Romney’s lies out for what they were. I knew Romney was lying, you knew Romney was lying, coal miners ten miles below the surface of the Earth knew Romney was lying. Then again, I am not Mr. Obama, and it is entirely possible that just about anyone would be left sputtering, “I…you…but…no…wait…that’s…wait…no…he’s…but…oh, to hell with it,” in the face of such a concentrated onslaught of deceit.

The real losers and failures last Wednesday were the denizens of the “news” media, and because of them, the American people at large lost big as well. In the week after that debate, the entire “news” media infrastructure unplugged its collective intelligence, sent the fact-checkers off on an extended lunch break, and extolled the virtues of Mr. Romney’s “strong” performance without bothering to mention the degree to which he had lied, reversed himself and completely mischaracterized virtually every aspect of his campaign to date. One online wag surmised that Romney knew he was dealing with an utterly incompetent political media, and so deployed the “Kitty Laser Debate Tactic.” Know how you can send a cat sprinting and gyrating around the room by flashing a laser pointer around? That’s what Romney did with his “facts,” and the media kitties went wild chasing after his little red dot, never once pausing to say, “Hey, wait, that isn’t real.”


So here we are a week later, ensconced in a political world where facts don’t stand a chance against a barrage of falsehoods, brazen liars are called “bold,” and an entire election can swing wildly within a short span of days because the “news” media needs a close race to make money, and be damned to doing their jobs. It does not have to stay this way; Mr. Obama has pretty clearly seen the writing on the wall (in 50-foot tall Day-Glo letters) that he has to step up his game, that the media isn’t going to help him, and that time is very demonstrably running out. The current dire poll numbers don’t reflect last Friday’s positive jobs report, so there may well be some movement away from the cratering phenomenon we witnessed this week.

And so much for all that.

For the moment, all eyes are focused on tonight’s vice presidential debate in Kentucky. Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will engage each other in what has suddenly become the most important VP debate in modern political history. Unlike Mr. Obama, Joe Biden is not what anyone would call the quiet, retiring type, and if Mr. Ryan decides to go into full-lie mode, Mr. Biden might actually throw the podium at him. To be sure, Biden will be the aggressor tonight, but it would be foolish for anyone to underestimate his opponent. Paul Ryan is the lean and hungry type, and unlike his running mate (who looks like an egg-sucking dog every time he drops a whopper), Ryan can and does lie without so much as a muscle twitch to betray him.

They will debate Medicare, and Medicaid, and tax policy, and the details of the sulfurously disliked “Ryan Budget Plan.” If Biden is firing on all cylinders, Romney’s “47 Percent” beliefs, the GOP’s all-out national assault on the rights of women, and the GOP’s generally wretched record over the last decade will be brought into play. Romney will not be there, of course, but Biden will have a golden opportunity to begin the process of pinning Romney’s dazzling array of lies and reversals on Ryan, and dare Ryan to justify or explain them. Joe Biden is a grizzly bear in human skin, and all the qualities that lead pundits to call him “gaffe-prone” are the same ones that could very well serve to blast Paul Ryan right out of the auditorium. Or not. Tonight will tell the tale one way or the other.

The president dropped the ball, the “news” media kicked it into the gutter, and now the eyes of the entire political universe are fixed on the Vice President. If Joe Biden can park it deep tonight, the Obama campaign can correctly claim to have gone a fair ways toward righting their listing ship. If not – if Joe blows it, if Ryan outduels him, and if the media once again decides to laud flash over substance – the time between now and election day will become very short indeed for the president to find a way to keep his job.

Three Tuesdays, plus five days, and counting.

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