The Bully vs. the Wonk
The Veep's strategy: Show contempt for your opponent.
WSJ Editorial, October 12, 2012
So now we know what Team Obama's comeback plan was following last week's defeat in the Presidential debate. Unleash Joe Biden to interrupt, filibuster, snarl, smirk and otherwise show contempt for Paul Ryan. The carnival act contributed to the least illuminating presidential or vice presidential debate of our lifetimes.
From the opening bell, Mr. Biden seemed to take to heart the interpretation that President Obama offered this week of his debate performance—that he had been "too polite." That was not a problem for the Veep, whose marching orders were clearly to steamroll the overmatched moderator Martha Raddatz and dismiss everything Mr. Ryan said with a condescending sneer.
By unofficial media counts, Mr. Biden interrupted the Republican some 80 to 100 times. Mr. Ryan let the bully get away with too much for our tastes, at least until he finally pushed back on the interruptions or until Mr. Biden lost steam in the last half hour. But as anyone who's been in a tavern past midnight understands, it's hard to win a fight with a guy who is shouting from the corner bar stool.
No doubt the performance cheered Democrats who needed cheering after last week, but we wonder how well it played with independents or undecided voters who tuned in to learn something.
To the extent that substance mattered, and it didn't count for much, Mr. Biden had his strongest notes on foreign policy. He too glibly rolled past the murders of four Americans at the Benghazi consulate a month ago, attributing the Administration's false early explanations to "the intelligence community." We doubt that's what the investigation will ultimately show. But on Afghanistan, Syria and to a lesser extent Iran, Mr. Biden was more sure-footed than Mr. Ryan. On Syria in particular, Mr. Ryan never said what a Romney Administration would do differently.
Mr. Ryan was stronger on domestic issues, calmly laying out the facts of Mitt Romney's proposals on taxes, Medicare and job creation. Even here, though, the debate devolved into an exchange between Mr. Ryan's policy details and Mr. Biden's free-association appeals to emotion and class solidarity—"Who do you trust on this?"
On nearly every specific issue on which Mr. Biden attacked, he was demonstrably wrong. The Administration's Medicare actuary really does say that 15% of hospitals will take on operating deficits as a result of ObamaCare's cuts in payments to Medicare providers. The American Enterprise Institute study doesn't say that Mr. Romney's plan will raise taxes on the middle class, and Mr. Ryan's Medicare plan doesn't raise costs for seniors by $6,400. Mr. Biden never even tried to offer a second-term agenda.
But this 90 minutes wasn't about an exchange of ideas or a debate over policies. It was a Democratic show of contempt for the opposition, an attempt to claim by repetitive assertion that Messrs. Ryan and Romney are radicals who want to destroy "the middle class." Mr. Ryan's cool under assault was a visual rebuttal of that claim, and we certainly know who looked more presidential.