The conventional wisdom has always been that presidential debates are almost never game-changers. It’s true, some debates stand out in hindsight but were not recognized as being significant at the time. Last week’s debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was not only a game-changer but a historic one. Not in recent memory has one candidate so effectively eviscerated his opponent as Romney did Obama.
The gutting was so comprehensive that even Obama’s loyal allies in the media were unable to escape the effects of their own meltdown. Clearly they were fully primed to spin his performance in a positive way but wound up sputtering in impotent rage, lashing out at Jim Lehrer and even Obama himself. The fallout over the past week and the satisfying turnaround in the polling has merely emphasized Romney’s magnificent victory in the Rockies.
Which brings us to the vice-presidential debate tonight between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. If presidential debates are rarely significant the same is doubly true of veep debates. There have been, of course, a few memorable encounters. The 1988 debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen is particularly well-remembered, thanks to the devastating zinger delivered by Bentsen when he let Quayle and the world know that he (Quayle) was “no Jack Kennedy.”
Among other things, that debate featured a true generational difference: the 67-year-old Bentsen versus the 41-year-old Quayle. Tonight, 24 years later, we will witness another veep debate that features opponents from different generations: Joe Biden, who will turn 70 next month going up against 42-year-old Paul Ryan. And rest assured that Biden would LOVE to land a blow as devastating to Ryan as Bentsen’s was to Quayle. Unfortunately for Biden, Paul Ryan is no Dan Quayle.
Expect Paul Ryan to talk about the role of government, balancing the budget, taxes and especially Medicare, which he will bring up before Biden in an effort to thwart an expected onslaught of accusations and lies.
“Because of the President’s terrible performance, because Mitt Romney did such a good job of giving the country a choice, they don’t have a choice but to have Joe Biden come at me,” Ryan said in an interview that aired Sunday on Milwaukee radio station WTMJ. ”He’s a very disciplined person when he speaks in these kinds of situations. He doesn’t produce gaffes in these moments,” Ryan told Fox News last week, making a reference to Biden’s tendency to say stupid things in campaign speeches.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus admitted the vice president is no stranger to the pressures of debates, given his 2 previous presidential campaigns and 36 years as a senator. ”Joe Biden is a gifted orator. He is very good at rhetoric, and I think is he very relatable,” Priebus said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union. “They are very two different people. And I think it’s going to be a great night.”
Former debate coach for Mitt Romney, Brett O’Donnell told Fox News he expects Biden to come out with guns blazing. “I am sure that Vice President Biden got a phone call from the White House, and said, you know, ‘Look, we didn’t go after Governor Romney as much and so you have to turn up the heat.”
Tonight’s debate has taken on heightened significance because of what Romney did to Obama last week. Everyone agrees that Biden needs to score a knockout of his own simply to even things up again. A clear victory for Ryan tonight would mean another five days of round-the-clock discussion as to how the wheels have come off the Obama campaign. At that point Democrats across the country will begin jumping ship in order to salvage their own reelection chances. Another five days of despair in the media, lamenting the looming defeat of their creature, would demoralize the base.
It’s well-known that Team Obama has long since given up any hope of capturing independents and swing voters. The only chance for an Obama victory is to energize the base and get out the vote. Repeated thrashings at the hands of Romney and Ryan would negate all Team Obama’s efforts to do that. That is what’s at stake tonight.
Which is why the first thing you need to understand about tonight’s debate is that there is exactly zero chance that the Establishment Media will describe tonight’s encounter as anything other than total victory for Biden. I’ve said it more than once that short of Biden bursting into angry, frustrated tears on stage there is no way the media will allow itself to have another meltdown. If Ryan wins the debate in the eyes of the viewers the media will call it a draw – which will then be spun into a net positive for Team Obama. If Biden wins a close one the media will claim it was decisive and spin it into a game-changer for Team Obama and the inevitable-Obama-Biden-victory-in-November meme will be given new life…at least among Obama’s cadre of media bodyguards.
But Biden, despite his reputation for being a reliable gaffe machine, should not be underestimated. He is – and has always been – a thoroughly nasty piece of work. He is an OG demagogue who has been making an ass of himself in Washington since he was elected to the Senate in 1972.
As Jeffrey Lord of The American Spectator points out, Ronald Reagan himself referred to Biden as a “smooth but pure demagogue.” Throughout the Reagan years Biden was notoriously soft on Communism and totally defeatist in his outlook regarding the Cold War. It’s fair to say that if things had ever gone Biden’s way back then the Soviet Union would probably still be around today. But while Biden has been 100% wrong in everything he’s said or done when it comes to foreign policy there’s no doubt that he has earned his reputation as a loudmouthed legislative thug. Reagan identified him as part of a “lynch mob” that included Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum (of Ohio).
Paul Kengor tells a story in The American Spectator about a classic example of Biden demagoguery that occurred in 1981. It was during the Senate confirmation hearing for Judge William P. Clark, who had been nominated by President Reagan to be the number two man at the State Department. Unlike Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Judge Clark was a close personal friend of Reagan’s and everybody knew how important this confirmation was to the President. Biden knew it and took it upon himself to make things as difficult and humiliating as possible for Clark during the questioning.
Biden began by patronizing Clark for his ability to put himself through school as the son of a poor rancher. “I, for one, think it admirable the way in which you have conducted yourself in getting to and through school,” began Biden. “I have a great deal of admiration for you.”
Biden then expressed his admiration by placing Clark in the stockade, asking him a series of specific questions he knew the judge would not be able to answer.
“I sincerely hope you can answer these questions,” averred Biden. “Let me begin with southern Africa — not South Africa, but southern Africa, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique, Angola and so on…. Can you tell me who is the prime minister of South Africa?” Clark answered: “No, sir, I cannot.”
As the cameras clicked and the evening-news crews started salivating, Biden pressed on: “Can you tell me who the prime minister of Zimbabwe is?” Clark: “It would be a guess.”
Senator Biden then ran through other policy specifics, curiously avoiding the Soviet-Cold War issues that Clark knew well. As he did, Biden inter-mixed his questions with feigned apologies. Biden: “I really don’t like doing this, Justice Clark, but I don’t know how else to get at the point.”
But what exactly was Biden’s point? He knew perfectly well that Clark was not going to be making policy decisions. His role as deputy was to be more of an administrative one. Technically he would function as Haig’s right-hand man but in reality would be Reagan’s personal eyes-and-ears within the State Department. It hardly mattered whether or not he knew the name of the current prime minister of Zimbabwe.
For his part, Clark was a paragon of restraint and civility, calmly telling Biden, “I respect that position, senator,” before adding, “I just have one point to make.” Clark then explained, as he had in his opening statement, that President Reagan did not bring him on board as a policy expert, particularly on individual issue areas. “Regarding making policy,” said Clark, “I have discussed this with both the president and the secretary [Al Haig]. Perhaps I did not make that clear, or maybe you came in a little after my description of what we consider to be the role. My position will not be involved in making policy, but rather in coordinating and implementing in the position as deputy secretary of state.”
Clark had indeed made that clear, as did the other senators, who jumped in to reiterate the fact. Even the ultra-liberal Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) rushed to Clark’s defense. Biden didn’t care.
The damage to Clark was done. Joe Biden may have been “sorry, Judge, really,” but he had so humiliated Clark that the judge became the laughing stock of the world, as the international press lampooned him. Most appreciative of Biden’s performance were the Soviets, who turned Biden’s work into basically a TASS press release.
Viewers of tonight’s debate should expect to see Biden attempt to pull off a similar stunt against Ryan, who is unassailable on economic policy but who is not known for his knowledge of foreign policy. Which is not to say that Ryan can’t hold his own on the subject of foreign policy. It’s just that it’s not his main area of expertise. Although Biden’s judgment in foreign policy matters is suspect to say the least, he does have an undeserved reputation as a foreign policy “expert.” Certainly Biden himself thinks so. He will try to exert his “mastery” while highlighting Ryan’s “ignorance.”
There is no need for Ryan to play that game. When Biden asks one of his what-color-is-the-sky-in-the-universe-he-lives-in questions, Ryan should flash a look of utter incredulity and pivot to what Americans most care about — how the middle class has been “buried in the last four years.“ If Ryan does that, which I fully expect him to, he will further cement what is going to be an overwhelming Republican victory, up and down the ticket, on November 6.
I agree with that assessment, despite the presence of a moderator who under other circumstances would have been disqualified due to her prior associations with the President and one of his underlings. This three-way dance should be of maximum interest for all those who care about their future and the future of our nation.