Political Animal


October 12, 2012 3:11 PM The Cannonball

By Ed Kilgore

Just did an appearance on KCRW’s fine show “To the Point,” and tried to make the point that Joe Biden’s accomplishment wasn’t just a matter of “aggressiveness,” but of a determination to leave no point unaddressed, while challenging the phony “moderate” framing the Romney-Ryan campaign is trying to use to re-present its agenda and particularly Ryan’s own budget proposal.

I don’t know how well I did, but Jon Chait put it well in a piece I just read:

The contrast with Obama lies not merely in their very — very, very — different energy levels. Obama approaches debates with the same intellectual method he uses in his books, his speeches, and his policy discussions. He instinctively tries to find common ground first, trying to work within the framework his opponent has established and acknowledge what he agrees with before delineating his disagreements.
Biden does not bother. He simply casts aside his opponent’s frame and works within his own. He did not ignore Ryan’s arguments, but he barreled over them like an enraged truck driver plowing over orange cones, before moving on to his own intellectual turf. Sometimes he barreled so fast his points were wrong or incomprehensible — most notably when he appeared to attribute the financial crisis to Bush-era fiscal profligacy, and seemed to set the bar for who should pay higher taxes at $1 million a year, not the $250,000 line Obama has labored to align his party behind. But it was a highly effective way to handle the smarmy evasions that Ryan predictably served up.
Biden met his audience at a gut level. Over and over he appealed to them to settle the debate by falling back on long-held prejudices about the two parties. Taxes? Biden set out to utter the phrase “middle class” as many times as he possible could, and to tie Romney and Ryan to the class interest of the very rich. On entitlements, he pulled out of the weeds and reminded voters that Democrats were the party of Social Security and Medicare - “Folks, follow your instincts on this one.” On defense, he repeatedly invoked the possibility that Romney would start another war, which is probably the only real way that foreign policy might enter the thinking of a low-information undecided voter. And three times Biden invoked Romney’s disparagement of the 47 percent, using it to frame the entire Romney-Ryan economic philosophy.

The point about Biden’s reminders of the two parties’ legacies was especially insightful. When Ryan dragged the debate into green-eyeshade land on the most sensitive points of his tax and budget proposals, Biden was basically saying: Do you really believe this guy is devoted to Medicare and doesn’t want to cut upper-income taxes? Even low-information voters are at least dimly aware that’s not credible, particularly after four years of talk about how the Tea Party movement has crafted a more conservative and militant GOP.

So when you hear anyone call Biden a crude bully in how he approached this debate, forget it. He knew exactly what he was doing, and while his performance was hardly perfect (it would have been nice had he found a way to convey that Ryan’s biggest fans love him for trying to decimate the entire New Deal/Great Society legacy), it got the job done.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 12, 2012 3:22 PM:

    Well, I did miss a good opportunity to see Biden use the word "malarkey" in the forum of political debate. It aptly describes the GOP's platform.

  • TCinLA on October 12, 2012 3:23 PM:

    Thanks for reminding me of all the reasons Obummer drives me crazy with his "run up the white flag of surrender first" strategy.

    He should have been Biden's Vice President for four years. He might have learned something useful.

    All he has to do next week is what he should have done last Wednesday a week ago but couldn't bring himself to do till the next day, when the horse had already left the barn.

    Maybe we could adopt the Designated Hitter rule for political debates and send in Joe the next two?

  • JackD on October 12, 2012 3:28 PM:

    Apparently Ed didn't hear Biden point out that the people Ryan represents in the Republican party have been trying to scuttle social security and medicare from their inception.

  • golack on October 12, 2012 3:35 PM:

    I'm inclined to believe that the President doesn't suffer fools well--not a character flaw, just a matter of time constraints put on the president. If that was a private meeting between the two, Romney would have escorted out within 5 min. Criticism, fine--blatant lying, unacceptable. There comes a point where trying to understand where someone is coming from so you can find common ground is useless--especially when that someone does not want there to be common ground.

  • norcal on October 12, 2012 3:41 PM:

    Agreed. And one thing Biden does that Obama doesn't do is defend the stimulus. If Obama doesn't step up and do some full-throated defense of how far we've come from the financial brink 4 years ago, he might lose this election. Now would be a good time to get boastful. There are so many markers to point to: job growth, strong stock market, progressive auto industry, etc. I for one am WAY better off than I was after the financial meltdown, and all the more so knowing I'll have ACA on my side. I'm frightened of getting back into a pro-war, pro-trickle down economy, and I wish O would be more aggressive in defense of his own progress. Romney & Ryan are *terrible* candidates, how can this race even be tied?

  • T2 on October 12, 2012 3:46 PM:

    It's been said many times today, but if complaining that Biden laughed too much, or talked over poor little Paul is the only rejoinder the Conservatives have to the debate, they are conceding the loss. And in that, they are conceding the emptiness of their policies.
    At the end of the day, VP Biden's performance was music to the ears of Democrats, and anathema to Republicans. You can't please everyone, so you might as well please your friends! A lesson I hope Obama learned.

  • Gandalf on October 12, 2012 3:55 PM:

    TCinLa@3:23pm God your full of shit. Yea that's right. There's a reason why Obama not Obummer ,as you so lamely put it, is president. Don't get me wrong I love Biden but when we're debating style points instead of substance then we've flown right off the reality track. Hell we my as well have the wrestler from Idiocracy as president if that's all that matters.

  • Brian on October 12, 2012 4:07 PM:

    I used you work at KAZU in Monterey ('05)and we carried 'To The Point'; I had to 'remix' the program for broadcast and push all the audio levels up... sometimes working against the clock to get into the station's automation system. Then, I discovered Adobe Audition's 'Hard Limiter' and my life became much easier. Perhaps they've improved their game since then but when I asked it they could boost their levels they said it was 'fine' as it was.

  • yellowdog on October 12, 2012 4:16 PM:

    Folks have a clearer picture of where the candidates stand today. Here are a few things the Biden-Ryan melee made clear:

    -Romney and Ryan are not on the same page on abortion--and the differences are not about the need to 'moderate' before a general election. Ryan's views are likely not very popular outside the GOP. Neither is Romney's wavering.

    -Romney and Ryan are willing to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014--and they cannot explain why or when they might come home.

    -Ryan wants to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare. He cannot explain how his tax and deficit plans actually work, with enough specificity to get over the skepticism that any plan from a Bush-supporting policy maker should naturally arouse.

    None of these positions are popular, and Romney needs to be pressed further on all of them. They are offering shoddy ideas and deliberate vagueness. Biden blew on the house of cards--and they started trembling.

  • SecularAnimist on October 12, 2012 4:24 PM:

    John Chait wrote: "Biden does not bother. He simply casts aside his opponent’s frame and works within his own."

    Yes, absolutely -- and that's how you win a debate.

    What Obama does is to begin by accepting and reinforcing his opponent's frame. That's why he loses the debate before it even gets started.

    Hopefully, Obama will learn this fundamental point about persuasion from Biden -- before it's too late.

  • jjm on October 12, 2012 4:35 PM:

    I think Chait is spot on and hope Obama listens. I just hate it when he appears to concede the opponent's framing of all issues.

    Good heavens -- the mostly terrible moderators for the debates (Radditz wasn't too bad, but really the framing matters!) do the job of very nearly always framing questions that offer up the GOP view of everything, and usually get stuck on the ludicrous, petty issues that the right is harping on at the moment. (Wasn't there once some debate question in 2008 about Obama not wearing a flag pin?)

    The moderators are the ones too often 'framing' the debates to favor the GOP. Obama has to learn to be more impolite and dismiss them.

  • emjayay on October 12, 2012 6:39 PM:

    Let's accept as fact that Obama is a smart guy. So why hasn't he learned the basic debating techniques everyone is talking about, even if they go against his instincts? Don't high school debate teams learn this stuff? Terrible advisors, or bad student?

    And any speech teacher will tell you never say "uh." You feel like you need a placeholder to fill in a space? You don't. Silence feels wrong but it's OK. Don't they teach this in some speech class in law school? Hasn't anyone ever explained this to Obama?