The Vice-Presidential Debate
Whew! As a Democrat and strong supporter of the President, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The Dems are back in the game again. Joe Biden did everything he had to do and more. He’s not the presidential candidate, but “stopped the bleeding,” as conservative commentator David Brooks put it. I think he also did a lot more. TV commentators are naturally oriented toward policy and substance. So their assessment of last night’s debate was not nearly as lopsided as everyone’s assessment of the first presidential debate, including mine. But I think they all missed a crucial point. From here on in it’s all about the music, not the words. Reason will take a back seat to emotion until November 6. The remaining undecided voters aren’t well enough informed to decide on words. They don’t have the patience, interest or capacity to parse the policy differences, let alone to research which of the vastly different numerical claims is right. So emotions like trust, hope and fear will decide this election. Policy wonkism won’t. (The President, of all people, ought to know that, since hope won for him in 2008.) Few noticed it at the time, but the same truth held for the first debate, too. If you listened carefully to the words—let alone read them on a transcript—the President didn’t do so badly. He made a few important points, including the GOP’s realistic plan to gut and privatize Medicare, its allergy to regulation, its intransigence in Congress, and that fact that debating with Mitt is shooting at a moving target. But on music and tone, Mitt clearly won. Playing the Great Salesman, he managed to rebrand himself from plutocrat and shape shifter to real, authentic and caring leader. Obama played the bored and tired professor who couldn’t manage a slow student who lies as well. Last night, it was the other way around. On the musical scale, Biden wiped the floor with Ryan. He made two key points of substance, but both had music much louder than words. The first probably put away the women’s vote, to the extent any debating thrust could do so. Moderator Martha Raddatz asked the two men—both Catholics—to explain how their faith affects their policies and their views on abortion. After a moving story of his firstborn, Ryan was all abstract theory. According to Catholic doctrine (and his own faith), he said, “life begins at conception.” For him everything else followed from that fundamental principle. His syllogistic conclusion was “no abortion,” but the policy he and Mitt have adopted (in order not to lose outright) recognizes exceptions for rape, incest, and saving the mother’s life. In reply, Biden cut to the jugular as no Democrat had yet done in debates. As a good Catholic, too, he recognizes the Church’s doctrine on conception. But he wouldn’t force it down the throats, he said, of other Christians, Buddists, Jews and Muslims. In one short sentence he showed—at a deeply personal level—the humility and “live and let live” philosophy, plus the deep understanding of democracy, that differentiates Democrats from the current GOP. But that was not all. Biden began his revelation of faith with an even greater command of Catholic doctrine: caring and generosity toward the disadvantaged and less fortunate---what the GOP disdains as “income redistribution” to “takers.” His answers to that one question were the nearest thing to a grand slam I have seen in this campaign season. Biden’s second near-fatal blow came much earlier in the debate, in a discussion of Medicare and Social Security. The candidates had traded Mark Twain’s “lies, damn lies, and statistics” inconclusively. It was absolutely impossible to deduce who was right from what they both had said in the debate. And undecided voters surely weren’t going to go out and look things up. So Biden cut through to the essence and made it easy for them. With passion and absolute conviction in his voice, he described how his parents, neighbors and working-class friends all depended on Medicare and Social Security and how they were neither “takers” nor losers. Then he recalled how the GOP has fought and cut these programs since their inception. Finally, he pledged that an Obama-Biden White House would never allow either program to be gutted or privatized, throwing clueless and vulnerable citizens on the mercies of private for-profit insurers or Wall Street. For me, that was the debate’s defining moment. If you were out there in the audience, worried about the “entitlements” for which you have paid in taxes, and if you are too disinterested or too ill-informed to have the faintest idea who has the best plan to reduce the deficit generally or for these two programs, you want to know just one thing: who’s on your side. Biden made that abundantly clear. And he did so in words and tone a voter with a six-grade education or encroaching senile dementia could understand. For a “rookie,” as one reporter described him, Paul Ryan didn’t do badly. He managed to keep his cool under fire and walk through his talking points. He even managed to tell a few stories that made him seem human and not without feeling. Before discussing abortion, he recalled how his firstborn had looked like a “bean” as a fetus under ultrasound, which became her nickname. But he was all theory, throughout the debate. He was the policy geek who had learned all he knew about life from books and position papers. Some two decades older and wiser, Biden was the man who had learned about life from living, hard knocks, and close to five decades of political experience. The huge gap in age and experience showed. On issues of foreign policy, Ryan made bold but reckless charges and second-guessed the Obama Administration like any armchair general. Biden came back with the polite equivalent of “Sonny, I was there in the Oval Office when the President heard the Joint Chiefs and made the decision.” I couldn’t help recalling the clip (often aired recently) of a grizzled and overweight Ted Kennedy saving his Senate seat by annihilating a young Mitt Romney in televised debate. Age and experience do matter. Biden showed that with his actions and his tone. He didn’t have to tell. Now that’s what the President must do next Tuesday. He must downplay facts and numbers, which sincere policy wonks, let alone liars, can dispute endlessly. He must show, not tell, his passion and his caring for ordinary people and their troubles. And he must revive the vision of his first campaign. He must abandon the professor’s lecture, where the conclusions come at the end, after tortured reasoning. Instead, he must adopt the lawyer’s brief, where the conclusions come at the beginning, the cut-to-the-jugular reasons next, and others only if there is space and time. He’s got to have a memorable one-liner for every issue and every argument—one that puts his often-hidden heart on his sleeve and bashes doubt away in words that a child can understand. If he or his campaign staff have to prepare of book of one-liners for him to memorize, so be it. There’s still time, and much need. If he tries to play the frustrated professor again, he may lose the musical contest just as badly and, with it, the election. But if he can do what Biden did, there will be no doubt about his second term after the next debate.