The VP Debate

Published October 12, 2012

National Review Online

I think both candidates basically did what they needed to do in the vice-presidential debate, which leaves the Republican ticket in a slightly better position–since Biden’s goal was damage control with the base and Ryan’s was reinforcing a positive impression with persuadable voters.

After the calamity they experienced in last week’s presidential debate, liberals needed to be bucked up by the Obama campaign, and I think they got that tonight. It probably came at a real cost–I have a feeling that Biden’s hyper-aggressive and at times buffoonish performance (and perhaps especially his Joker grin, which seemed to me as much a product of nervousness as of intent) hurt the ticket some with independent voters and especially with women–but it was a price the Obama campaign is probably quite willing to pay given the situation they’re now in. This debate didn’t help them win persuadable voters, and it probably won’t move the polls in their direction, but it will calm liberals down and it was absolutely essential for them to do that. The MSNBC types needed someone to be a jerk toward Paul Ryan to his face, and they got it.

Biden gave them what they needed by behaving the way liberals think Mitt Romney behaved in last week’s debate–basically like a strident bully who just says whatever he needs to say to shut down his opponent. The Left wished Obama had done that, and now they got to see Biden doing it. The trouble for them is that Romney didn’t actually do that. He won by appealing to moderate voters through substantive arguments. Biden (and therefore Obama) won’t gain that appeal from this debate.

For Paul Ryan, this was an important night. He didn’t shine the way Romney did last week, but that’s never really an option for the running mate. His job was to reinforce Romney’s case and to pass the bar of presidential credibility himself, and he certainly did that. In his biggest moment on the national stage to date, he was calm, clear, thoughtful, and serious. That’s the image the Romney campaign needs to project in these final weeks, and it’s the image Ryan wants to project. He did it in part by not pressing every potential opportunity he had (whether intentionally or by truly missing those opportunities), so that for those of us who spend our days mired in the minutia of these policy debates it was sometimes frustrating to think that here was Ryan, who could basically make Joe Biden look like a fool on this or that issue, instead making a more general point and returning to the basic economic case. He had to decide on the fly how to handle Biden’s strange behavior, and he probably made the right choice. Ryan was easily the more presidential figure on the stage (I might have said “more vice presidential,” but that would seem like an insult), and his command of the foreign-policy issues that came up should go a long way toward putting to rest any concern about his expertise on that front.

Substantively, Biden was predictably demagogic on the key domestic issues. His argument on entitlements was basically “don’t listen to either side, just use your common sense, don’t you trust Democrats more than Republicans on this?” That’s a very good sign for Republicans, especially on Medicare, and especially because polls (including the debate focus-group dials) suggest the answer isn’t necessarily what Biden thinks it is–or what it used to be just a few years ago. Republicans have made extraordinary gains on that front, and this is very largely Ryan’s own doing.

This was one place where my own policy obsessions left me thinking Ryan could have said more, and particularly that he might have pushed one more time on “vouchers.” I don’t have any particular problem with the term “voucher” in a lot of policy contexts, but it is simply not an accurate description of a premium-support reform of Medicare, in which seniors would get their choice of coverage, not a voucher, and those whose choice was among the more expensive would make up the difference themselves while those who choose cheaper options would have no further out of pocket costs and might get some money back. At no point is there a voucher. This is exactly how the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, Medicare Advantage, and the federal-employee insurance system through which Joe Biden’s family has gotten insurance for 40 years function. Are those voucher programs?

I also thought Ryan should have gone one step further into details on the tax plan–perhaps pointing to the idea of a cap on total exclusions at some dollar figure, as Romney has done. He tried to argue instead that the president’s job is to lay out principles (no increase in the deficit, no increase in middle class taxes, no reduction in the portion of the tax burden borne by the wealthy) and then reach decisions on particulars with Congress. That’s certainly right, but Biden didn’t let him make the argument, and he should have pushed back some by first providing the particulars that Raddatz (who clearly didn’t understand his answer) was demanding. But these are the complaints of a wonk–of a person who notices missed opportunities rather than simply listening to what was said.

On foreign policy, I think Ryan won handily and that the debate (along with the sheer facts of the Libya debacle of course) has largely robbed the administration of what it thought would be a foreign-policy advantage going into the final weeks, and especially into the last presidential debate in two weeks, which is all about foreign policy.It was quite striking, of course, just how much foreign policy there was in this debate. It was clear from her questions that Martha Raddatz really knows a lot about foreign policy (so that she pushed against and argued with some of the liberal platitudes Biden was pushing) but knows only the basic liberal talking points on the domestic issues. That’s too bad–her aggressive and pressing style would have made for some good exchanges if she knew more about those subjects.

Ryan pushed especially effectively on Libya, and I actually think Biden’s answers on that front were extremely problematic for the administration and will greatly complicate their efforts to control a growing, serious, and very ill-timed scandal. The bald-faced lie about requests for more security will just have to be rolled back, which will be a bit embarrassing. But Biden’s throwing the intelligence community under the bus is a huge problem too. Any time a politician blames something on the intelligence community, you just know that a torrent of leaks from the intelligence community to the major papers is about to erupt, and I think we can bet on that happening here.

Above all, I think a voter stepping back from all of this would have to ask himself just what the Obama administration is actually proposing to do in the next four years. Anything different from the last four years? Anything in particular at all? This was basically a debate about the Romney agenda, with somethoughts on the Obama record thrown in. For a campaign whose motto is “forward” there was remarkably little forward-looking substance.

To assess the effect of it all on the race, I think an important question will be how many voters watched this debate, compared to the last one. For those who did, I imagine this will basically be a draw–a tie between those who found Biden’s bullying effective and those who found it off-putting. But among those who only hear about it in the coming days, I have a feeling that this will turn out to have been a bit of a problem for the Democrats. Ryan’s performance probably won’t be much noted either way (which is about what he was going for, I suspect; he has nowestablished his placein the very upper tier of American political lifewithout even much of a fuss), but the two lasting impressions of this debate that will be talked about will be Biden’s bizarre behavior and his false assertion about requests for security by American diplomats in Li
bya. As they struggle to close Romney’s narrow lead, neither will be a welcome subject of discussion for the Democrats.

Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.

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