Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pre-blogging: Thoughts before the 2012 vice-presidential debate

By Michael J.W. Stickings and Richard K. Barry, with tmcbpatriot and Frank Moraes

Stay tuned for our mid- and post-debate posts, coming up later!


We thought about live-blogging the Biden-Ryan vice-presidential debate tonight, like we did last week's first presidential debate, but then thought better of it.

Mainly because it's hard to live-blog and also pay close attention to the debate. You just miss too much, and you end up staring at the computer screen and thinking of what to write about what you just heard instead of watching the debate itself, picking up body language, and following the theater that are these debates, including what is being said. And, as was the case last week, that's especially tricky when you're pulling in comments from several different people, all coming in via e-mail, as I was doing.

Interesting note: In retrospect, I think that's why I thought Obama did better than most other people did. I was listening more than watching, and what I was picking up mostly was Romney's lies. It's not that I was particularly happy with Obama's flat, detached comments, and throughout the debate I was urging him on, almost begging him to be more focused and aggressive both in responding to Romney's lies and in articulating his own positions, but the differences in body language weren't as obvious to me given that I was listening and writing. It was only later, watching clips, that I saw just how lousy the president's performance was in contrast to the more aggressive, and often bullying, Romney.

Anyway, none of that tonight.

I'd also mention that there's a Steelers game on tonight, and I'm going to watch as much of that as I can without missing the debate. Honestly, I'm not sure what would be worse, a Steelers loss or a Biden loss.

Okay, not honestly. Obviously a Biden loss would be much, much worse. I've already resigned myself to a forgettable season from this mediocre incarnation of my beloved Steelers, while a Biden loss -- at least a convincing one -- would be disastrous for Obama.

Suffice it to say that the combination of a Steelers loss (to the lowly Titans, possible given that they tend to play down to the competition) and a Biden loss would make me want to curl up into the fetal position with a bottle of Bourbon and listen to some Adele. I'm not sure I'd be able to function, and I'd be a wreck tomorrow and through the weekend at the very least.

But I digress...

What we're going to do tonight is put up three posts -- pre-, mid-, and post-debate -- with comments from all four of us and perhaps other of our contributors as well.

Why mid? Because I have a fantastic idea. I think these debates, like football games, should be made up of two halves separated by a 15-minute halftime. This would allow the candidates to go back to their respective "locker rooms" and regroup. Imagine what would have happened last week. Obama, off to a wretched start, would have gone back to find Axelrod, Plouffe, Cutter, and the rest of his team waiting to rip into him. Okay, okay, I'm not sure you ever "rip into" the president, but at least they could have given him a rhetorical kick in the ass: "Uh, Mr. President? What the fucking fuck? Seriously! Wake the fuck up!"

The media would love this idea, as the pundits would have those 15 minutes to spew their "in-game" analysis, just like the guys on CBS, FOX, and NBC do every Sunday, or the NFL Network guys on Thursdays, or the ESPN guys on Mondays. There could even be halftime entertainment. Tonight? Ron Paul enthusiast Kelly Clarkson! Or whatever.

There's no way this isn't a good idea. We need to make this happen.

As for my pre-debate thoughts...

I'm worried. Worried that Ryan will be his usual smarmy lying self while Biden comes across as just a bit too nuts for his own good. Worried that the media will again refuse to talk substance and instead award the debate to Ryan for standing tall against the more experienced Biden and for being such a brilliant ideas man (the same way the media still give Newt Gingrich a free pass for supposedly being an intellectual). Worried that even just a steady performance by Ryan will reinforce the narrative that Romney might just be presidential material.

As Jon Chait wrote:

Liberals are excited to see Joe Biden tear after Paul Ryan, and Republicans are expressing trepidation, but the prospect that Biden will tear apart Ryan’s math is almost a pure fantasy. Ryan is not a good budget wonk — witness his 2010 exchange with Ezra Klein when he simply abandoned all his nonsensical talking points and conceded everything.

But you can’t expose your opponent's misleading budget numbers to win a presidential debate any more than you can expose your opponent's misleading budget numbers to win a swimsuit competition. The audience has no concept of the underlying facts. The audience will only be able to grasp the atmospherics of the debate. And Paul Ryan is a world-class bluffer. He will spout figures with winsome authority, and Biden will come off as an angry old man.

At the same time, whatever his reputation as a gaffe-prone liability, I think Biden's really good at these things -- debates and speeches alike. He was excellent four years ago against Palin and excellent at last month's Democratic convention. And as New York's John Heilemann reports, drawing on an interview with the vice president from August, he appears well-prepared to take on Ryan tonight:

Much has changed in the race since Biden laid all this out to me, to be sure. But there are several clear takeaways that have been reinforced by reporting (by others and by myself) about the VP's game plan. First, he plans to be aggressive. Second, he plans to be substantive and data-driven. Third, he plans to draw out the clear ideological contrasts between the Democratic and Republican tickets. And fourth, he plans to perform with one thing paramount in his mind: that he isn't debating solely (or even mainly) as Joe Biden qua Joe Biden, but as a proxy for the president.

All through his career, Biden has had one huge advantage in every debate he's ever engaged in: being systematically underestimated by the press and his opponents...

We shall see, and we'll be back at "halftime" -- around 9:45 -- with some in-debate thoughts on how it's all going.

As for the Steelers... well, they'd better win this one if they have any hope of having a decent season.

Okay, now my colleagues:


I really don't have a lot to say going into tonight's vice-presidential debate. I think Joe Biden will do fine. I'm somewhat amazed the right-wing has been at all successful in suggesting Joe is some kind of fool who is likely to say any silly thing. Closer to the truth is that he is an experienced politician who understands the average American voter better than any of the other main characters in this year's election epic, including President Obama. Biden understands things the way most American do and expresses them in ways they can understand and relate to. Though I am no fan of Ronald Reagan, this was his strength as well, and it was easy to call him a fool back in the day. Much as I disliked Reagan's politics, I can't deny many people liked him because he at least seemed to be one of them. I suspect Joe Biden's considerable political success is owning to this, at least in part.

Biden has also been around politics a long time and understands the issues. He will not get caught short on substance.

As for Paul Ryan, I never understood all the adulation from those who consider him a courageous, big thinker -- the intellectual leader of the current variant of conservatism. He's nothing but your old fashioned small government Republican. If social Darwinism is the big idea Ryan is peddling, he can have it. We have been there. We don't want to go back.

The issue tonight may be the extent to which Ryan pivots, as Romney did, away from radical conservatism. If he does, it will be an amazing performance. After all, Romney is a pretend conservative, always willing to say whatever it takes, while Ryan is the real thing right down to his Ayn Rand collector series underwear. If he starts moving towards the centre, the world might just stop turning on its axis.

Without necessarily calling Ryan a liar, Joe Biden will have to find a way to do the same in a way far more direct than Obama felt prudent. He has to made to look foolish for not  being able to explain how their budget numbers work, or how his Voucher Care program would not be a disaster for Americans.

More than anything, Biden will need to be tough and engaged. I think he can do that.


Here we go. Another debate. Of course, based on last week's fiasco, I am counting on Joltin' Joe to stick a fork in Ryan. If he is smart, which I know he is, he will not allow Ryan to lie like Romney did, but will hold Ryan accountable for his responses and, if need be, give him all the time he needs to explain his "math" to the nation. If Ryan says "It will take too long to explain" their tax cuts or how he and Romney will lower the deficit, Biden must simply cede his time to the gentleman from Wisconsin and allow him to hang himself. 

Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin. I imagine he is expecting a fight from Joe. I hope that is what we will see. I don't want to get my hopes up though, as I thought Obama was going to win the first debate. But I think Joe has had nothing but time to prepare for this and will be quite ready to take on whatever Ryan tries to throw at him. Joe is no dummy. He is experienced, smart, funny, dramatic and aware of the stakes. I am sad to say it, but all of that plays great on TV. Let's face reality. 

Nevertheless, the Vice President truly has the opportunity of his lifetime to show the nation who he really is. I don't think this is lost on him. He also has an opportunity to call out Romney on all the things that Obama failed to call him on last week. Let's hope he does that too. Yes, the pressure is on and that seems to be when Joe is at his best. I am looking forward to a spirited debate. I am sure we will get it.

Frank Moraes:

My take on this debate is that it doesn't too much matter. The first presidential debate made reluctant Romney supporters comfortable with him. People who would have supported Romney but were ashamed to admit it came out of the debate confident enough to proclaim to pollsters, "I'm for Romney!" I think there is a corresponding group of Obama supporters who are waiting for an opportunity to proclaim their support for the President. (I don't think they all came on board after the DNC.) The VP debate tonight is unlikely to change this fundamental dynamic.

There are three ways this could go. By far the most likely is that nothing will change. Slightly less likely is that Biden will do quite well. This will not make Romney supporters rethink their choices. Nor will it make people leaning toward Obama jump on the bandwagon. But it will no doubt stop the dirge liberals have been playing all week. The other possibility is that Ryan will destroy Biden. In this case, it might push the "undecideds" into being truly undecided. It could be bad.

As for me, I've been careful to hide the week-long version of "16 Tons" that's been going on in my brain. In fact, I've been a bit of a Pollyanna -- at least in public. But I will admit now that it has been a
hard week and now I want to see Biden destroy Ryan. In fact, what I'd really like to see is a fist fight. I know Ryan works out, but as any urban scrapper can tell you, "That don't mean a thing." It's all about attitude and being able to take a punch. And that's just as true of a debate. So I'm hopeful. Biden has one big advantage over Ryan: he really is from the working class. Ryan just pretends to be. And I expect to see that come through loud and clear tonight.

Of course, if after the debate everyone is talking about Ryan's working class cred, I will lapse into full Andrew Sullivan mode and I won't stop until the 6th of November.

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