Historian's Take: The Vice-Presidential Debate

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Ruth Rosen, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, is a Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis and a scholar in residence at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Movement at U.C. Berkeley. Her most recent book was “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.”

Well before the vice-presidential debate began, even the president had agreed that he had failed to expose Mitt Romney’s lies and had allowed his opponent to present himself as a supporter of universal health insurance, Social Security and Medicare, none of which is true.

Equally important, in my view, is that Obama failed to mention some of his major accomplishments, many of which affected women. Obama began the first debate with an 18 percent lead among women voters. When Joe Biden stepped into the ring, Obama had lost most of that advantage. The greatest shift showed up in the Pew’s national poll which now has Romney and Obama tied with women. According to this respectable poll, Romney had moved from an 8-point deficit among all respondents to a 4-point lead.

Is this the result of forgetting to even mention women in the first debate?

In this second debate, Joe Biden needed to attack Romney and Ryan’s lies by forcefully demonstrating, in his avuncular jovial manner, how Medicare vouchers, cuts in Medicaid, privatizing Social Security would hurt Americans women and their children. He needed to hold up Paul Ryan’s infamous budget and look directly into the camera and speak to the women Obama lost last week. Point by point, he needed to remind American women that Obama -- not Romney -- created Obamacare, supported the right of women to make their own reproductive choices, promoted and signed legislation that provides equality between men and women at the work place, supported the children of immigrants, and sought fairer loans to college students.

Biden did a terrific job of pointing out how Romney’s policies would harm people, but not women and children.

Holding up Paul Ryan’s budget, Biden needed to say it loud and clear -- that the Romney team will cut benefits for the poor, even as they provide corporate welfare and cut the taxes of the wealthy. This he did, again and again.

This was the moment to call every misleading statement what it really is: a lie. Biden called it “malarkey” and made it clear that the Romney/Ryan campaign had rarely told the truth.

Ironically, Congressman Paul Ryan had been dragging down the Republican candidacy precisely because he was viewed as too conservative. Presidential candidates usually choose someone who will, by virtue of geography, ethnicity, or popularity, ensure the campaign’s success. In 2008 and 2012, however, the Republican candidates, worried that the hard right-wing of the Tea Party and their followers would refuse to vote for a moderate Republican. So, they gave them Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan.

Big mistake. Sarah Palin appeared ridiculous and inexperienced. Paul Ryan, for his part, wrote a budget proposal to compete with the president’s budget plan. He therefore had a paper record of wanting to privatize Medicare and Social Security, both of which are vital to the elderly. He also had a written plan to turn both the food stamp program and Medicaid -- medical insurance for the poor -- into block state grant programs, which would create even deeper spending cuts over 10 years.

Ryan is also on record of wanting to cut taxes for the wealthy, or as he calls them, “the job creators.” He would reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent and release offshore profits from U.S. taxes. To make up the difference, he would reduce taxes on the wealthy and cut the above social programs. Since Mitt Romney “earns” millions of dollars from his investments, pays less taxes than most blue-collar workers, enjoys the pleasures of multiple homes, he, too, has seemed out of touch with most of the population that is plagued by fears of bankruptcy, layoffs, and educating their children.

For this debate, then, the goal of Paul Ryan was to pretend that he never embraced such draconian proposals against working families and the poor. That’s what Mitt Romney did during the first debate and, unfortunately, President Obama failed to stop him.

Biden’s role, therefore was to come out swinging, convincing the audience that the Romney and Ryan campaign have run for 18 months saying one thing and now are lying at the national debates. This he did. Biden was far more aggressive than Ryan and refused to allow lies to pass as truth.

Given Biden’s well-known (somewhat exaggerated) working-class background, it was inevitable that he would attack Paul Ryan for his indifference to the welfare of ordinary Americans. Since he has now become the weak link in the Republican campaign, Paul Ryan should have been on the ropes. Despite his good looks, youth, and buff appearance, however, the best Ryan could do was to deny his record and to attack the contemporary economic fragility of the economy, without acknowledging that it was Republican policies that created it in the first place.

On the stage were two different visions of the American dream. For Biden, the government exists to create opportunities for its citizens, to assist the vulnerable and the disabled, and to prevent a depression, even if it means bailing out banks. For Biden, the American dream was built on hard work, not on investments, and on people who have helped others to build better futures for their children.

For Ryan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, government is the problem, never part of the solution. In his view, individualism is what created American prosperity. His vision is clear: it is a society in which you go it alone. (Of course, you might have wealthy parents or powerful connections, but that doesn’t count.)

Ryan conveniently forgot that the government subsidized the creation of the computer, built an interstate road system that criss crosses the country, designed missiles that landed men on the moon, subsidized universities that are the envy of the rest of the world, and preserved some of the most gorgeous national parks on the globe.

Taxes allowed the federal government to do these miraculous things. Some things just can’t be done by an individual. That’s why there are police officers and fire fighters. If you listened to Paul Ryan tonight, however, you heard the rant of an individualist who has yet to realize that together, we rise or fall.

Finally, Paul Ryan had been a serious liability for recruiting women voters. His record against abortion included no exemptions at all and was formally inserted into the Republican 2012 platform. Tonight he repudiated the Republican Party Platorm and said he supported exception. Yet he also conceded that a Romney/Ryan presidency would also be opposed to abortion. Ryan has also supported “personhood,” the belief that a fertilized egg is a human being, which would criminalize many forms of birth control. Although Romney’s more moderate stance of allowing abortion in the case of rape, incest or the health of the mother is supposed to dominate the campaign’s positions, hopefully women realized that Ryan had conveniently changed his mind. When the platform and the vice-presidential candidate speak so fiercely against women’s right to make their own reproductive choices, they see President Obama’s consistent support of women’s rights as symbolic of his entire attitude toward women. Even though these issues remained invisible throughout the first debate, Ryan’s views, one hopes, will once again strengthen women’s support for the president. But when will these politicians remember that women also care about wage equity, Social Security, the education of their children, Medicare, and health insurance?

The Big Lie has worked for all kinds of politicians, including Hitler. Now the question is, will Joe Biden’s debating skills help viewers realize that Romney and Paul have repudiated everything they’ve stood for before the debate?

President Obama is right; they are engaged in salesmanship, not leadership.

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Bernard A. Weisberger is a distinguished teacher and author of American history. He has taught at several American universities, including the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester, where he served as chair of the history department.

The clash between the two vice presidential candidates, as suspected, produced more sparkle, but not much more light than last week's opener. This was due in good measure to Biden's spirited accomplishment of what he knew to be his mission -- to defend the president's record as one of flawless accomplishment, and especially to arrest and if possible reverse the Republican momentum created by Obama's own soggy performance. Often grinning in obvious enjoyment of real political rough-and-tumble, he did a far better job than his boss in drawing some clear distinctions between the contenders. He put the spotlight on Romney's inadvertent disclosure of his contempt for the supposed 47 percent of sponges dependent on government handouts, which Ryan could only counter by a personal story of what a splendid and humane fellow Romney was when you really knew him, and he sounded all fhe notes of the populist scale, from claiming and praising Democrats' defense of Main Street against the predators of Wall Street to berating congressional Republicans for hostage taking by refusing to extend middle class tax cuts unless the Bush tax cut giveaways to millionaires were made permanent.

One post-debate complaint of his performance from those who judge performance rather than substance struck me as misguided if not trivial. It was that Biden's laughter and head-shaking disbelief when Ryan had the mike were disrespectful and would alienate fair-minded viewers. It's a sign of how far we have departed from our robust political skirmishes of the past. At the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas debates the audiences were not passive, but according to press reports chimed in with shouted comments. Ryan, like Romney, chose instead to gaze at their opponent with Mona Lisa-like half smiles, and sometimes the soulful eyes of a pet dog begging for table scraps. I hope that the managers of the parties, having drained the spontaneity from the national conventions, don't follow up by imposing on us as debates, a dialogue of robots who deliver taped comments on cue.

Martha Raddatz, a far better moderator than Jim Lehrer, did work hard to structure a real exchange of ideas with specific questions but both men used the experienced interviewee's rule: respond with a prepared talking point even if it bears only a gossamer thread of connection with the question asked.

Again, what cross talk there was left wide swaths of unexplored terrain. Asked about such matters as job creation, tax policies, Medicare and Social Security's future, Biden stuck to his sturdy defense of every strand of the social safety net, while Ryan, instead of engaging the questions directly, reeled off the Republican plan that would bring prosperity trickling down to the lowly -- tax cuts, free trade, energy independence, elimination of the familiar villains, waste and fraud, exemptions and loopholes but with more of them at the high end of the income scale -- this last point to gain a veneer of resistance to inequality. But the overall problems of inequality, money in politics, "underwater" homeowners, the outsourcing of jobs, and especially the now-visible progress of global warming -- these never made their way into either the questions or the answers.

In foreign policy matters likewise, there were sharp encounters on how long to remain in Afghanistan, what to do about Iran's nuclear development, whether to intervene in the civil war in Syria, how to confront terrorism and with what kind of force -- Biden generally insisting that the administration was following sensible paths, Ryan railing at the "unraveling of Obama's foreign policy." But as to what the United States should define as its broad goals in the Middle East, whether or not we needed a military more costly than those of any combination of possible enemies, how far in the name of counter-terrorism we could afford to throttle civil liberties at home and kill innocents abroad with drone strikes--silence was eloquent. One thing that struck me, as it has done for a long time, was the enormous deference to the military. No reference to our troops can be made even casually without hailing their bravery, their excellent preparation, their superior performance, the wisdom of their generals. They are treated with the immunity from criticism once reserved for organized religion and its spokespeople. In World War I we denounced Prussian, heel-clicking militarism; in peacetime we made fun of it, but that seems a fragment of a lost past now.

The final question on the role that their religion has played in shaping the attitude of both these Catholic men on abortion did in fact bring out a genuine difference that went to the heart of the issue. Ryan insisted that life begins at conception and he would ban all abortion save in cases of incest, rape, or danger to the life of the mother. Biden, this time looking thoughtful and serious, said that he agreed with the Church's position on when life began -- but would not use the power of government to impose his beliefs on others. In the closing statements Ryan read off his laundry list of failures of the Obama administration to alleviate the economic stagnation (omitting to remember that it was the result of a crash caused by frenzied finance generated by an unregulated Wall Street) and the wonderful recuperative strategies that he and Romney would employ if elected. Biden emphasized his faith in "a level playing field and a fair shot" for everyone, sounding again the small-d democratic refrain muted by the conservative Democratic leadership.

So onward to the next act -- to see how Obama, in next Tuesday's encounter, has recovered his stride and more importantly, now halfway through the set of confrontations, if the many questions so far missing in action will get the attention they deserve.

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Daniel Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved

Three reactions to the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate last night:

Middle East dominance: The foreign policy aspects of the debate focused almost exclusively on Libya, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Binyamin Netanyahu’s name was invoked eight times, far more often than any other person other than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The Euro crisis, the recent reelection of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and the country of India all went unmentioned, while relations with Russia and China came up only glancingly. So chaotic, volatile, and murderous has the Middle East become that American politicians are quasi-experts on it to the point of naming the rival Afghan valleys they’d visited. The region has also become an integral part of a voter’s decision on whom to vote for president. That Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain never came up, while Egypt and energy were mentioned only once, points the depth of the Middle East issues bench.

Joe Biden’s smirk: Actually it was not just the smirk -- it was also the false hilarity, the 82 interruptions of Ryan, the finger pointing, the preening arrogance, and the talking down to the audience -- that overshadowed all else in the debate. Not until the last fifteen minutes did Biden talk like a normal human being, and then he became quite effective. Before then, however, his ugly demeanor overwhelmed his words, leaving a powerfully unpleasant impression. In contrast, Ryan spoke earnestly and respectfully, even while getting in a couple of sharp elbow jabs.

Lack of principles: With only a few exceptions, both candidates (as was also the case in the presidential debate) stayed aloof from principles, preferring to make the case as to who is the more competent manager. They do so presumably in the chase for those independent voters in swing states; but for anyone with views on the proper direction of the country, those endless numbers and the disagreements over small facts meant the discussion verged on the tedious.

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Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.

While polls show that those surveyed consider Mitt Romney the winner of the first debate with Barack Obama by landslide proportions, the vice presidential debate will probably be perceived as more of a tie. Democrats who went in primed to like Joe Biden will applaud his slash-and-burn aggressiveness. Republicans who went in primed to like Paul Ryan will applaud his wonky Boy Scout earnestness. In the end, this vice presidential debate, like most, will have little impact on the electoral outcome. But the big question this debate raised is one of debating dignity. Biden’s performance -- and he was clearly performing -- included smirking, scoffing, chuckling, and guffawing, although he seems to have mostly skipped the sighing which hurt Al Gore’s standing in 2000 when he debated George W. Bush.

The quest for dignity is as old as the republic. It reflects America’s more elitist and character-oriented republican roots, as well as the monarchical dimensions involved in executive leadership. Originally, the candidate’s virtue as expressed through his dignity was so cherished it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to run, they stood for election, as George Washington did. But the waves of democracy that transformed America also changed campaigning protocols, launching candidates into the hurly burly of the political process.

Of course, these restrictions apply more to presidents and potential presidents than vice presidents. And there is a strong counter-tradition -- which Biden clearly embraced – of the Veep or Veep nominee as tough campaigner, partisan mudslinger, and hatchet man -- or woman. In 1900, when William McKinley ran for re-election against the charismatic William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s running mate Theodore Roosevelt fought hard against the activist Bryan. Roosevelt delivered 673 speeches to an estimated three million people, while Bryan’s 546 speeches reached approximately 2.5 million Americans. As Roosevelt denounced Bryan and the Democrats for appealing “to every foul and evil passion of mankind,” resorting to “every expedient of mendacity and invective,” McKinley remained presidentially above the fray.

Half a century later, Richard Nixon did the dirty work for President Dwight Eisenhower -- and then expected his vice president Spiro Agnew to fight the partisan wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s against those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” reporters and Democrats. Most recently, in the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric was far harsher than Barack Obama’s, her running mate John McCain’s, or her opponent, Joe Biden’s.

Republicans are already encouraging a backlash against Biden’s antics. Whether this will become a broader phenomenon remains to be seen. But, even with all the handwringing over Obama’s passivity last week, Biden should have been more restrained. His behavior turned ugly not just undignified at the end, when Paul Ryan tried to conclude on a gracious note of respect toward the Vice President, and Biden kept clowning rather than rising to the moment. Although his position is modified by the word “Vice,” America’s number two leader should still act like a president.

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