In the Arena

The Vice-Presidential Debate: Biden in Command

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Jeff Haynes / Reuters

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden makes a point in front of Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan and moderator Martha Raddatz during the vice-presidential debate in Danville, Ky., on Thursday, Oct. 11

This was a fine, fascinating, energetic debate. Joe Biden won — certainly on the substance, although he lost a bit on the body language. His frustrated smiles, head shakes, etc., etc., will become a Republican talking point and influence the postgame evaluations, even if they were sort of justified. Biden was in command throughout, a more forceful and passionate presence than Paul Ryan. But Ryan did well too — unflappable even when Biden nailed him on his requests for stimulus funding. And Ryan had some nice moments, arguing uphill against Biden’s onslaught. I’m sure he passed muster on foreign policy knowledge — he’s been to the Arghandab River Valley in Kandahar province, for God’s sake! — even if his policy proposals were either fatuous or dangerous.

If there was an emotional center of the debate, it came when Biden went on a tear about the middle class — about Mitt Romney’s 47%, about Ryan’s makers-and-takers formulation. “You’re talking about my mother and father,” he said. “You’re talking about soldiers fighting in Afghanistan!” The passion here was unique in this campaign: it was, without any question, real. Biden was truly offended by the current Republican “dependency” argument. He said Romney would have let the auto industry die, and Ryan responded, lamely, that Romney was “an auto guy” and then wandered into a treacly recitation of Romney’s beneficence after members of his church had suffered a car crash. Biden quickly acknowledged Romney’s personal rectitude but moved right on to the fact that he didn’t extend that humanity to the 1 million auto workers who would have lost their jobs if the industry had been allowed to fail. I suspect the debate was pretty much over at that point.

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On Medicare and entitlements, my inner wonk is arguing with my inner pol. My inner wonk keeps saying: Biden had nothing to say about how he would reform Medicare, and every human extant knows we have to reform Medicare. (Indeed, Biden had just about zilch to say prospectively, on any subject, about plans and policies that the President would enact to move things forward.) Here’s the problem: Ryan’s answer is just flat-out wrong. Forcing the elderly to make market choices with their — yes — vouchers is cruel and unproved. In some states, there are no health care markets. In Alabama, for example, you have a choice between Blue Cross and not much else. But the real answer to the problem — which is using electronic records and best practices, and restricting fee-for-service medicine, to cut the 30% to 40% of Medicare spending that is unnecessary — is too complicated to explain in the heat of a debate (unless you’re Bill Clinton, perhaps). But my inner pol says: Biden told the immediate market for old-age entitlements — baby-boomer geezers like me — exactly what they wanted to hear. It probably helped in Florida.

More than once in this debate, my inner wonk sided with the criticisms that Ryan was raising — while totally opposing his simplistic solutions. And there is a generational danger here for Democrats: younger people see a stagnant economy, with no jobs for them, and they have doubts that the social safety net will be there when they get old. This is a great political conundrum: older people should be wildly pro-Obama, but they’re not; and younger people should be open to the concerns that Ryan is raising, but they seem wildly pro-Obama.

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On the most important question, though, Biden did well — he did not seem goofy. A little over the top at times, especially when he was engaged in aerobic mugging while Ryan attempted to peddle his wares. Passionate, frustrated, but not goofy. Ryan did seem borderline geeky. At several points, talking about the economy, he rattled off a near incomprehensible string of statistics without anything that came close to humanity intervening. There was not one moment when Biden wasn’t human, wasn’t himself. He had awkward moments — but not one phony moment. (And I must mention that Biden did not use the word literally, which has almost become a verbal tic with him, even once.)

The Vice President was especially good when Ryan tried to raise Biden’s history of gaffes, after Biden mentioned Romney’s 47% soliloquy. “But I always mean what I say,” Biden said, totally comfortable in his skin. “And so does Romney.”

A final note: I am extremely prejudiced about Martha Raddatz. She’s a friend — and one of those journalists who consistently puts herself in harm’s way to report the truth. And she is truly devoted to the troops who took care of us, and amazed us with their courage and humanity, when she and I and dozens of other American journalists embedded with them; if she carries water for anyone, it’s for them. So I was outraged by the efforts of Matt Drudge and other skeevy right-wing propagandists to denigrate her integrity in advance of the debate. And I’m miffed by those talking heads who criticized her for spending too much time on foreign policy. If you hire Martha Raddatz to run a debate, you get foreign policy — and some damn fine domestic-policy questions and interventions as well. She ran a great debate, with some tough questions tossed at both candidates. Knowing Martha, I would have expected nothing less. She gave our sweet old democracy a debate we can be proud of.

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