The Race For Second

Alright, so I’m late. I didn’t really mean to be, and I was questioned about it, but I’m here now with the probably-no-longer-material-to-you wrap-up of the vice-presidential debate.

The night began with Vice-President Biden practically blinding everyone with his teeth. The thing about the vice-president seems to be this: he’s totally authentic. You don’t have to like him, but you don’t get the sense from him that anything he does or says is insincere. When Mitt Romney grins, let’s face it, it seems put-on. When President Obama grins, sometimes it seems a little swaggering. But when Vice-President Biden grins, he just seems to be having a heckuva good time. The Irish love a good debate. Or argument. Or bare-knuckled old-timey fist fight in which they wear pants held up by a string around the waist.

For the record: I attribute 98% of Mr. Biden’s personality to his Irishness. That includes facial expressions.

And, as it turns out, the facial expressions were what might have boosted both the interests and the ire of viewers. If you’ve watched Mr. Biden for years and years, you know that he often expresses his thoughts with his face. (I do it, too – it gets me in trouble – and in this and our Irishness, I am a kindred spirit.) If you pay attention beyond the grins, you see his eyes go Laser Mode almost immediately after the grin disappears. When that happens, I think it means the grin was the first offsetting reaction to frustration, aggravation or anger. Like a mirthless chuckle.

Most of the times Mr. Biden busted out the Cheshire Cat, it was because he thought Rep. Paul Ryan had said something untrue. A lot of those times, he was at least half right.

Now, given the nature of politics and humanity, both men said stuff that was at least partially untrue throughout the night. To me, the most glaring untruth from Mr. Biden was the claim that the administration didn’t know the deaths at the US consulate in Libya were a terrorist attack in the early days afterward. Why do I think that’s glaringly untrue? Because I posted that government investigators were looking into signs that it was terrorist attack less than 48 hours after it happened, and I didn’t make that up. I’ve never understood the administration’s pushing of the stupid freaking YouTube video as the entire cause of that event. It does no one any good: it portrays Muslims as a bunch of ignorant savages ready to riot and kill at the slightest provocation; it makes the government look vulnerable to something as simple as a YouTube clip; and it ignores the actual problem at hand in the region, dumbing down a multi-national push for democracy currently stuck in the “unstable” position into nothing more than a viral video gone supernova.

So what about the most glaring untruth from Rep. Ryan? Sadly, it’s not an original line. It was when he called the Affordable Care Act a “government takeover of healthcare.” The healthcare law relies on private industry. In fact, it wouldn’t work without private industry. Its founding principle is that private industry exists and should continue to exist. The Republicans came up with a zinger line for the electorate back in 2010 and they’re still fiercely hanging on, but it’s simply a total falsehood.

Of course, there was a lot more to the debate that was far more nuanced, and for me as a viewer (and a wonk), it was, really, a fantastic political event. It featured a great deal of detail on both sides, but if we have to judge which candidate was the more specific, it would have to have been Vice-President Biden. Several times, Rep. Ryan was unable to be specific, although he made it appear on the surface as though he was, laying out  “bullet points” that comprise the Romney/Ryan plan. They sound great, but it’s impossible to back them up with specific action because it can’t be done without the full cooperation of Congress, and no one knows if they’ll get that. If you question that statement, consider this: a good chunk of the Romney/Ryan plan includes cutting back on tax deductions, credits and loopholes. Let’s see if Congress is okay with giving up significant drawdowns of the mortgage tax break. That’s not a hypothetical. It’s in the plan.

Ever since the Romney/Ryan campaign started pushing it, I’ve questioned their insistence that they will create 12 million jobs in four years. That insistence, and that number, is based on hoped-for results from non-specifically determined pathways, again, relying on the cooperation of Congress. Says a Romney ad: “First, my energy independence policy means more than 3 million new jobs, many of them in manufacturing. My tax reform plan to lower rates for the middle class and for small business creates 7 million more. And expanding trade, cracking down on China and improving job training takes us to over 12 million new jobs.”

Well… he’s said nothing about how. On what does that energy independence plan depend? How, in particular, do those three things in the last sentence really push his plan over 12 million? And you’ll notice that the seven million jobs rely on the aforementioned hoped-for tax plan.

And by the way: 12 million jobs in four years amounts to about 250,000 jobs per month. Romney himself has said that a normal recovery would grow jobs at 500,000 per month.

Why am I talking so much about Mr. Romney when I’m summarizing a debate between Mr. Ryan and VP Biden? Because Romney’s tax and budget plans come largely from Mr. Ryan.

Mr. Ryan said job growth in September was slower than it was in August. Both numbers were small, but he was wrong. In August the economy added 96,000 jobs. In September, 114,000. He was right that both numbers were smaller than the additions in July:  163,000. What no one seems to talk about is what we were warned about back in February and March, when jobs numbers were higher than expected: it was because of the mild winter, and it would mean lower job creation numbers in the summer.

There were a lot of interruptions in this debate, coming entirely from Vice-President Biden. If you don’t like the Vice-President or the President, or if you don’t like politics much at all, you probably didn’t care for the argumentativeness. But Mr. Biden did his job in this debate. He came out firing on all cylinders and ready to challenge the inaccuracies that might come from his sparring partner. That’s exactly what President Obama did not do in the presidential debate the week before, and he paid for it. Mr. Biden hit hard at Mr. Romney’s “47%” mess… something the president didn’t mention once. He hit hard at the things that were blatant misstatements, like when Rep. Ryan claimed his Medicare plan had bipartisan support and that its cosponsor was a democrat from Oregon (in reality, there is zero support from democrats; the original Oregonian democratic co-sponsor withdrew his support after Ryan revamped the plan). Mr. Biden may have been what some people consider rude, but when the facts are at stake, sometimes couth deserves a wide berth.

But if politics are perception, Mr. Ryan definitely came off as calm, informed, articulate, prepared and controlled. I personally found some of his at-the-camera speeches a little rehearsed and robotic… something Mr. Biden never projects.

In the end, if we have to pick winners and losers, there are three ways to break this debate down. The first is in terms of actual information and facts, and in that, the debate was pretty much a tie. Both sides lied a little (although Mr. Biden lied less than Mr. Ryan) and both sides were very knowledgeable. If it’s about style, and you prefer calm to contention, then Mr. Ryan had the edge. The third is about party performance. Both men did their top-of-ticket running mates good on the night, but Mr. Biden made the greatest strides because his team had higher to climb after the president’s disappointing performance the week before. He got the president’s base to come down off the ledge while proving the Romney/Ryan team dishonest on a few points.

As always, I encourage you to read the transcript or watch the debate, which was 90 minutes. And here is the link to politifact.com’s fact-checking page.