The reviews from Thursday night's debate are in, and the macro story, essentially, is that Vice President Joe Biden "managed to right the listing USS Barack Obama."
Alternatively, he "stopped the bleeding." Or, if you prefer, Biden "probably gave depressed Democrats an emotional jolt." We at your Speculatron would simply say, to use the cliche, Biden did what he had to do -- stand firm behind the president, offer a rousing and emotive performance, and, yes, show the sort of aggression in opposition that President Barack Obama, for a multitude of reasons, will not be able to.
A chance to cut is a chance to cure, and that is precisely what Biden set out doing in 90 minutes of sparring with his "friend," Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan. Lop, chop, slice -- and the Obama supporters who were left wondering what happened in the first presidential debate were back up off their fainting couches and reaching for their foam fingers.
And Biden brought the full Biden -- he flashed big, sarcastic smiles, jumped into any dead-air that Ryan provided to interrupt and object (deploying a similar technique that we saw former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum use during the primary season's debates), and used grand and emotive melodramatic gestures like he had spent most of his debate prep studying at the feet of François Delsarte.
No one would call Biden's performance especially nuanced -- hell, he essentially dodged moderator Martha Raddatz's first question, on the attacks in Benghazi. But in doing so, he shifted immediately to praising the man at the top of the ticket for lop-chop-slicing off the head of Osama bin Laden. If you recall, last week we remarked that the biggest flaw in Obama's own performance was that he failed to demonstrate that he was a figure of any consequence -- he didn't live up to Biden's famous declaration, "General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead." Biden made sure the audience heard about both of those things last night.
Is it little more than cheap theatrics, and melodrama? Absolutely. But it's important to remember that melodrama is the most popular and salable theatrical genre in the history of the modern world. Just ask George Lucas, folks. Or, to be clearer, ask a younger George Lucas -- the one who didn't abandon those melodramatic tropes for a dull rumination on galactic trade deals and the internal politics of the dour Jedi Knights. That's actually a great way of parsing the difference between the Obama/Romney debate and the Biden/Ryan tilt -- Biden brought back a healthy dose of Harrison Ford's cocksure swashbuckling.
Romney surrogates, in the immediate aftermath of Thursday night's debate, made it clear that only Romney is allowed to smile ebulliently, laugh out loud, deploy zingers, and interrupt people. (When Romney does it, it's super-strong and presidential, when Biden does it, it's conduct unbecoming.) They didn't enjoy Biden's performance, not at all. Which is going to be fine with Team Obama Re-Elect, because that was the point. Biden, and only Biden, had the leeway to push boundaries and buttons. Obama can't take it as far as his running mate (in any event, it's not in his nature), but Biden has now opened up a little space for Obama to attack without being thought of as antic.
In the meanwhile, conservatives leading off the discussion with complaints about Biden are making a mistake, in our estimation, because their guy, Ryan, did a perfectly decent job last night. At times, he was even fun! But Ryan could really benefit from his surrogates going out and accentuating the positive Friday. Some of the post-debate insta-polls give Ryan a slight edge -- his allies need to go out and talk him up, and manifest some enthusiasm over him, so that those wins take on greater significance.
Right now, their best efforts are accomplishing nothing more than pushing Ryan's presence down the memory hole. Of particular note Friday, was Romney surrogate Karl Rove, who spent time on Fox News spiraling through all of the zingers that Ryan didn't use. Did you know that Ryan passed on bringing up the "middle class has been buried" line? It was nice of Karl Rove to remind everyone of that.
To put all the carping about Biden's comportment in proper context, we'll borrow from Dave Weigel: "On Thursday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan was the guy who bow-hunted for fun and posed for pictures of his P90X workout. On Thursday night, he had been unfairly bullied by an old guy."
There you have it, and the Obama campaign can more than live with it. In fact, if Obama's team of flacks are smart -- and that's an open question! -- they'll hit the Sunday shows characterizing it all as, "Biden really got under Ryan's skin." They'll connect that with Ryan's flailing, "I-don't-have-time-to-do-the-math" appearance on Fox News Sunday and his "testy" exchange with a Flint, Mich., reporter, and make the case that Ryan is cracking under the kliegs, the Golden Boy can't hack it, the GOP's "whiz kid" is more like the "Wiz" from Seinfeld:
Now that the one-and-done battle of veeps is concluded, the narrative moves, inexorably forward. The important thing to remember, here, is that all Biden could have done last night was reenergize the Democratic base, and blunt the sinking momentum that damaged the president's standing last week. He was never in the position, however, to get momentum trending in the other direction. That's up to Obama now, and while the media loves a comeback narrative, the expectations on Obama will be magnified significantly. No, he won't be able to glide over the top as often as his running mate. And the town hall format of the next debate, which requires the candidates to do more engaging with citizens than with each other, won't provide the sort of intimate setting where small shows of aggression look large.
But what Biden demonstrated is that having a passion for your performance really matters, and it's passion that Obama will have to demonstrate. If the same Obama, who hates the artificiality of debates, shows up, he'll falter. He needs to find some of Biden's pure "love of the game." Otherwise, he'll join Ryan in being easily eclipsed. Ryan can survive that. Obama won't.
THE RADDATZ RESTORATION: Here's an Iron Law of Debate Victors: If you want to know who lost the debate, all you need to do is find which candidate's surrogates and allies are out in the next 24 hours, whining about the debate moderator.
In the first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer took the lion's share of criticism from Democratic partisans, who very cheaply attempted to conflate the problems with the debate itself with the problems in President Obama's performance. But the two matters needed to be distinguished. Lehrer opted to remove a lot of the traditional debate structure, in the belief that having more discussion on a smaller number of questions would make for a better exchange of ideas. This was clearly incorrect -- what it mostly did is encourage a crap-ton of blathering that so obscured the two candidates' contrasts that Lehrer was constantly having to ask after them: "Can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice?" Lehrer begged, "A clear choice between the two of you on Medicare?" Huh, what? Remind me what is going on here!
But for all Lehrer's flaws, he had nothing at all to do with Obama sucking canal water for 90 minutes. That, Obama did all on his own. It was convenient for his surrogates to suggest that Lehrer ran their guy off the rails, but it was patently unfair. Romney allies mocked the attempts appropriately.
But they must have the memories of mayflies, because after last night's debate, they've come out bleating with the same whiny insecurities. As Jack Mirkinson reported:
Raddatz asked hawkish questions about Iran and pushed Biden repeatedly on whether there had been a "failure" of intelligence in Libya — all things conservatives could enjoy. He seemed to lose patience with her more than Ryan did, at one point sharply telling her to "be straight" with him about Afghanistan. Her take on Social Security and Medicare — she said both were "going broke" — would likely make liberal economists grind their teeth. Still, conservatives howled that she let the extremely animated vice president run roughshod over Ryan.
"Wow, Martha Raddatz really is in Obama's camp it seems," blogger and pundit Erick Erickson wrote. "Biden SHOULD thank Martha," Laura Ingraham tweeted at the end of the debate. "Martha Raddatz is the worst moderator," Sean Hannity tweeted. "Maybe next time @PaulRyanVP should invite her to his wedding." That was a reference to the fact that President Obama attended Raddatz's wedding in 1991 to Julius Genachowski, the current head of the FCC and a fellow student of Obama's at Harvard. Raddatz divorced Genachowski in 1997, and the Romney-Ryan campaign said it had no concerns about her impartiality.
This is all just more time wasted doing anything other than talking up Ryan, and outside of the already converted, it's not a message that's going to play with anyone who's remotely persuadable.
Now, this is not to say that there isn't some constructive criticism to offer Raddatz. Her framing of Social Security and Medicare as "going broke" is incorrect and doesn't even require a "liberal economist" to get out of bed to critique it. The very conflation of the two programs, in this context, remains a perennial error of media professionals. Medicare is the more difficult nut to crack, because it features a complicated array of inputs and outputs, there's rising longevity in the population, and the overall cost of health care is escalating. But it's not going broke -- in fact, the Obama administration added eight years of solvency to the system (which Romney wants to take away).
Social Security, on the other hand, is neither "going broke" nor a complicated fix -- raise or remove the income caps on contribution, and you provide solvency. It's a little system we like to call the "Make Alex Rodriguez Pay More Social Security (And Make The New York Yankees Match) Plan," and it's elegant in its simplicity. All we really need to preserve Social Security is some of those brave-talkin' legislators who always pound on and on about needing to make "the tough choice" to show up for work one day and prove they are what they say they are.
(The added benefit of my plan for baseball fans is that it would provide incentives to keep player salaries from reaching such bonkers heights. Why pay a man half-a-billion to do the same job as Raul Ibañez, after all? Well, if that's what you want to do, you can bloody well do more to take care of your aging fan base.)
Meanwhile, nobody ever calls the Pentagon "going broke," but the military doesn't run on wishes anymore than Social Security does. Yet, we have Raddatz talking about angsty generals not getting one more "fighting season." Got revenue?
We aren't going to harp too hard on this. (But hey, David Roberts will.) We thought Raddatz was firm and kept the conversation lively without becoming last week's dull mess, and these inconsistencies really only demonstrate that she's spent significantly more time talking to generals and studying foreign policy than she has poring over the vagaries of the domestic discretionary budget. All of which suggests, as we've suggested elsewhere, that she would have best been given the moderator position at the final presidential debate on foreign policy than this vice presidential grab-bag. Imagine Raddatz, with more time and leeway, asking her Libya questions of Obama and Romney. Do you think Republicans would be castigating her the next day? Hell, no.
WHAT ROMNEY IS DOING TO WIN: It's become a well-cemented piece of conventional wisdom that Romney's recent, successful shift to a more favorable standing in the polls stems entirely from the fact that Obama took the stage in Denver and proceeded to unleash a steady stream of Ambien-farts all over the debate stage. It seems that when the story of this election is written, that's how this past week will be characterized. Hell, we did our part in ensuring it, so, sorry everybody.
So let's take a minute just to remember that Romney has a staff of strategists, and they actually have a plan of their own, and it's not 100 percent dependent on Obama making a bunch of unforced errors and soporific debate performances. Here's what's working for him:
Keeping it vague. For the better part of the year, the Romney campaign has made an extraordinary effort to keep his plans and policies as obscure as possible. This has, at times, driven Romney's nominal allies in the conservative punditocracy to distraction, and prompted them to rain down criticism on his campaign. (More on that in a minute.) We have contended throughout that the Romney campaign has done this by design, the point being to deny Team Obama Re-Elect a fixed target to train their own fire.
There have been times that pursuing this strategy has caused the Romney campaign to take on water -- every time it is forced to gloss over the Tax Policy Center's obvious problem with its tax plan (even with the most generous assumptions, it requires a big middle-class tax hike to work), it hurts. But over the long haul, it seems to be working, and there is even some political science to back up the theory. As Dylan Matthews reported: "The political scientists Michael Tomz and Robert van Houweling, of Stanford and Berkeley respectively, have found that vagueness is actually an asset for political candidates."
Tomz and van Houweling conducted an experiment where they asked 1,001 people for their views on government services. The respondents were given seven choices: increase services by a large, medium, or small amount; decrease services by a large, medium, or small amount; or keep them at the current level.
They were then asked to choose between four pairs of candidates; half were given the candidates’ parties, and the other half weren’t. The two pairs included a specific candidate, who took one of the seven specific positions on government services (increase/decrease, large/medium/small), and a vague candidate, who supported a range of positions like “increase services” (without specifying by how much) or “increase or decrease services a small amount or do nothing.”
The last two pairs were the same as the first two, but with the vague candidate’s position made more precise.
The results? "They found that ambiguity helps across the board. It increases support by members of one’s own party by 5.3 percentage points. No statistically significant change was found in support from independents or members of the other party; indeed, the midpoints were a 1.7 point bounce from independents and no change among members of the other party."
Lie and lie again. Romney fans probably won't appreciate us framing it like this, but the satirists at the Onion basically nailed it in their piece, "Romney Proudly Explains How He's Turned Campaign Around."
“I’m lying a lot more, and my lies are far more egregious than they’ve ever been,” a smiling Romney told reporters while sitting in the back of his campaign bus, adding that when faced with a choice to either lie or tell the truth, he will more than likely lie. “It’s a strategy that works because when I lie, I’m essentially telling people what they want to hear, and people really like hearing things they want to hear. Even if they sort of know that nothing I’m saying is true.”
“It’s a freeing strategy, really, because I don’t have to worry about facts or being accurate or having any concrete positions of any kind,” Romney added.
Now, we'll remind you that this is from a satire publication, so don't go quoting that and putting it on your Facebook wall as if it was something Romney really said, or everyone is going to point and laugh at you. That said, if Romney wanted to say this, he'd probably be talking about a strategy he's riding to success. Over at Reuters, Jack Shafer contends, "The pervasiveness of campaign lies tells us something we’d rather not acknowledge, at least not publicly: On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth."
As Shafer points out, one of the worst things you can do as a candidate, in fact, is vow to be truthful:
The one presidential candidate in recent memory to win the White House posing as a truth teller was Jimmy Carter, who famously promised early in his campaign: “I’ll never tell a lie” and “I’ll never knowingly make a misstatement of fact” as president. These promises drew instant fire from the press, most notably Steven Brill, who flayed him in a March 1976 Harper’s piece titled “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies” (subscription required). Carter, who told no fewer lies than the average candidate, paid a political price for his promise, as everyone turned up their radar. “By saying that he would never tell a lie, Carter decided for himself that that’s going to be his standard,” said Alan Baron, George McGovern’s press secretary. “Well, fine, let’s hold him to it.” As soon as they could, voters replaced the non-lying liar with Ronald Reagan, a man so smooth even he didn’t know when he was lying.
As for Romney, Shafer says:
Voters especially don’t mind if their presidential candidate tells a lie that appears to repudiate the party’s most sacred principles. For instance, in the first of the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney claimed to be for economic regulation. “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation,” said Romney. Few Romney supporters flinched at their man’s endorsement of government intervention into business, because they knew he knew his lie was designed to make himself look palatable to easily duped Democrats and independents. If they’ve hung with him this long, Romney supporters know that his presidential campaign has been one long lie – first to convince the Republican Party that he was an honest conservative and now to convince voters in the general election that he’s a devoted moderate.
Just as vagueness does, lying helps to keep your opponent from hitting a stationary target. Let's recall that Obama was apparently completely taken aback at the debate when Romney started advocating an entirely different set of policy proposals than the ones he'd previously been promoting. This was not Obama making an unforced error. This was Romney going on offense and winning.
Once your allies stop criticizing you, you get a bounce: Like we said, Romney's "keep it vague" strategy ended up drawing a lot of criticism from those who would normally have been aligned with him. If only they knew that letting all that slide would have been a huge help.
There's a powerful argument to be made that the one thing Romney needed to do was just show up at the first debate. We've discussed previously the way that getting out on stage with an incumbent president provides a sort of "leveling effect," which helps to ease voters into the notion that the challenger is a credible chief executive.
But let's look at Romney's debate performance in a new way. Up until he took that stage, concerned conservatives saw The Romney Unit as an unknown piece of hardware that left everyone uncertain about how it would perform once it was matched up with Obama. Romney's debate performance, more than anything else, was what allowed him to pass a critical "proof of concept" test. Once he did so, that carping and backseat driving that got Ann Romney all heated up went away. And the big poll bounce followed.
The 4th Estate Project actually did a study of the effects of conservative complaints about the Romney campaign and found a compelling correlation with Romney's poll numbers. Per Michael Howe, the 4th Estate Project’s chief technology officer, "Our data suggests that Republican negative statements within the Media toward Republican candidates moves public sentiment, as measured by public opinion polling, much more than negative statements toward Republican candidates generated by Democrats. In other words, media consumers would seem to have a built-in sensor for ignoring the negative statements that are generated across political lines, but that when members of the same party are negative or critical of each other, this becomes something of note to swing voters.”
It has even helpfully provided an infographic to make this clear:
Romney's ability to get conservatives off his back could be the real game-changing product of his debate performance, and critically, it's not one of the dynamics of the race that Obama is likely to be able to change. You'd think that Romney's sudden shift to a more moderate set of stances might only aggravate conservatives, but so far you'd be wrong. The GOP punditocracy has noticed it, but it isn't complaining about it. All that matters is what works and right now, Romney is working just fine.
It does raise an interesting question however -- does it work both ways? Obama's own poll numbers started tanking in the wake of the Denver debate, amid a torrent of similar criticism and caterwauling from his pundit-supporters. Of course, you can hardly fault them -- Obama had objectively given those pundits a flop debate performance that only the most devoted flack could spin out into something complimentary.
But some of the reaction was terrifically outsized, all the same -- Chris Matthews' vine-ripened agita and Andrew Sullivan's near-suicidal LiveJournal entry that somehow got upvoted onto the Daily Beast come to mind as two examples of criticism that went stunningly over the top, perhaps to Obama's overall detriment. When all is said and done, some of the complainants may come to regret that they didn't just keep calm and carry on.
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