In terms of electoral results, it's hard to make the case that Vice Presidential debates (or even Vice Presidential candidates) have a serious impact. But after last week's debacle, in which President Obama lethargically plodded through a disastrous first debate with Mitt Romney, undecided voters who were leaning in his direction will be looking for something to grab onto. Meanwhile, voters who may have become newly interested in the Romney/Ryan ticket will be looking to the new face of the modern GOP for a dose of substance to bolster the warm and fuzzies that Mr. Romney's confidence and enthusiasm may have prompted.
As usual, I have waited until after the wind tunnel has settled before weighing in on the first presidential debate. On Sunday night, I watched it again to see if the benefit of outside analysis and reflection offered additional insight. If anything, I came away feeling as if the President performed even worse than I had initially suspected, though my first reaction was itself quite critical. Before we get into substantive issues, let me say that the optics could not have been worse. Not only were President Obama's responses weak and his retorts listless, his body language seemed to concede point after point – even when those points were ripe for rebuttal.
I think it's fair to say that the President's performance last Wednesday was right up there with President Reagan’s initial debate with Walter Mondale or President Carter's final debate with Reagan, as the worst debate performance by a sitting president in the modern era. And if he loses in November, it will be very difficult – especially considering the polling data – not to cite that pallid performance in Denver as the turning point in what looked like certain victory just the day before.
The question that keeps burning in my mind is how on Earth, given the dynamics of the modern news cycle, the President's staff could not have prepared and utilized more accurate data. Switching positions, or “shaking up the etch-o-sketch,” has been a hallmark of the Romney campaign since its inception and it was an area where the President held high ground. But by continuously bringing flawed data and disingenuous numbers to the argument, the President has continuously ceded that high ground, retreating to an our fibs are smaller than theirs position, that results in an electorate so exhausted by fact checks they seem willing to surrender the technical details in order to focus on the sort of intangibles that Romney so clearly dominated last Wednesday.
The President's plan does not cut $4 trillion from the deficit. There is no money being “saved” by winding down certain combat operations that can be used to “pay down the debt,” and the subsidies to big oil companies is around a billion dollars a year, not over $4 billion as he claims, a number which gets into much more complicated accounting involving aspects of the industry beyond “the biggest oil companies.”
Conversely, Mr. Romney's very vague tax plan does not add up. We cannot cut the tax rates by 20 percent, grow the defense budget and make up the difference by getting rid of hereto unknown tax deductions and hoped-for increases in tax revenues coming solely from presumed increases in economic growth. We cannot keep all of the “good ideas” in healthcare reform without the cost-saving measures to pay for them, and we can't make Medicare better for all of its recipients by turning more of it over to private insurers.
But when the laundry list of fibs in the fact-check boxes the following morning are piled too high for the average voter to want to wade through, it becomes much easier to just assume they're both being typical politicians. In this case, most voters will look toward the general philosophies and the impression of who has a more solid understanding of the issues and better ideas from which to govern once the campaigning is through, and this is where Romney made the big gains. When discussing Dodd-Frank, Romney had a better command of specific issues, while the President mumbled Democratic talking points.
There were arguments which could have been forcefully made over nearly every issue Romney excelled on. The President simply didn't make them, or made them so feebly that the tone and posture of his retorts hurt him more than the substance buried within them could have helped. Despite conventional rhetoric, President Obama has never struck me as a strong debater. He won the 2008 primary on the stump, not on the stage, and it was only thanks to particularly bad performances by Senator McCain, who continuously demonstrated a very weak command of economic issues during the worst economic time in modern history, that he looked above average that October.
On the other hand, Romney did not do well in 2008, and succeeded in the 2012 primaries largely by evading direct confrontations, while assuming the role of presumptive nominee. When he ran for the Senate in 1992, he was soundly defeated in his televised debate with the late Ted Kennedy, who aggressively called him to the carpet on an array of policy pivots that have grown into an immense catalog of flip-flops in the years since. Kennedy also managed to reveal Romney's propensity to rattle, then retreat into a snarky posture, a weakness that has presented itself several times while confronted on the campaign trail all these years later. But if Kennedy was a pit bull in his debate with Romney, President Obama was a basset hound in his.
Kennedy would have attacked Romney's math; his foreign policy reversals on Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Israel; his 47 percent comment, explained that his repeal of the estate tax did not coincide with his purported reason supporting keeping the Bush tax cuts in their entirety, and then took him to task on the holes in his healthcare comments regarding pre-existing conditions and mandates. He would have explained that Americans already have boards that sit and make cost-basis decisions on their healthcare coverage, they just work for profit-driven insurers right now; and Kennedy would have forcefully defended the need for the government to vigorously invest in alternative energies, while pointing out that much of the reason that many of our own programs have failed is owed to a much more massive investment by the Chinese, who continue to outpace us on technologies we invented.
Tonight, Vice President Biden will have the opportunity to make those arguments against a less-experienced opponent who comes in against very high expectations. Ryan has been built up as the future of the party and the architect of its platform. Like Obama's reputation in debates, I don't think that Ryan's reputation here is well-earned. Congressman Ryan has struggled in explaining matters of policy, especially in areas of tax policy and his budget plan, when interviewers have pointed out contradictions or unworkable arithmetic, often growing visibly agitated anytime he's not speaking to his audience. Put Ryan in front of a crowd at CPAC or onstage at the RNC and the audience swoons, but when someone cross-examines that which his acolytes take for granted, he tends to get miffed. If he can refrain from doing that tonight and instead comes off not only knowledgeable, but statesmanlike, it is likely to further boost the ticket.
For Biden's part, he's often the butt of Republican cheap shots regarding well-publicized gaffs, but the fact remains he's an accomplished legislator with a tremendous command of policy. His speech at the DNC also showed how well he can connect the prose of policy with the poetry of the campaign trail, translating technocratic ideas into the experience of the average American voter. But at the end of the day, I'm confident that every Democrat on the team is wishing that Bill Clinton could pinch hit for the President in his remaining two debates. If Biden gives them that same sense this evening, leaving voters with the impression that neither person on the ticket can articulate a clear plan for progress, defend the administration's record, or counter the claims of the other side, then the tide of this race will have turned profoundly by tomorrow morning and Romney/Ryan will be in the driver's seat.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.