Vice Presidential debates are rarely more exciting than presidential ones. But on Thursday night, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden gave voters a more thorough and open rundown of each camp's positions, despite having what would essentially be three Presidential debates worth of subjects crammed into one. While supporters of each side likely felt as if they got a good dose of what they wanted to hear, the debate crystallized the differences between the tickets and should have given undecided voters plenty to think about.
All politics aside – which is to say everything aside – an incumbent ticket will always have an enormous challenge in asking the American voter for another four years during troubled times. The uneven playing field our country has been enjoying for the last 60-70 years have created rather entitled expectations. Whenever things aren't good and getting better, we want to know who is at fault and who is going to put the extra squeeze of jam back in our donuts.
Just the same, I think we've also grown healthily skeptical of easy fixes, and though it's always tempting to believe we're just a few simple, ideological fixes away from returning to something we can never quite define, there's something in the back of our mind that seems to understand that the world is changing, and that many of today's challenges are bigger than any one nation and certainly any one person. As far as proof in the political process, I'd point out that voters have seemed more impressed with policy than pompous and grandiose promises in this cycle.
Bill Clinton's DNC speech was widely seen as the best of either convention, and what was most surprising about that, was that it was also the wonkiest. People want to hear ideas that make sense to them. I think both Ryan and Biden helped those sort of voters understand their choices in a way they could understand. Ardent supporters of either ticket likely heard plenty of what they wanted to hear, and as such, probably felt that their guy won.
Ryan stuck to the script on the numbers, which as we've said, don't favor the President. There have not been as many jobs created as promised, unemployment is just barely under 8 percent for the first time in four years, while we are running deficits that are unsustainable in the long term without seeing enough growth as a result. That's a great position to be in as a challenger. However, you still have to convince the American people that you can do better, and this is where I don't think Ryan made much, if any ground. Just like the numbers are an Achilles heel for the White House, Ryan's record hurts his credibility on the platform he's tried to advance.
On the deficit, Vice President Biden correctly pointed out that under a Republican President, Congressman Ryan was not only a willing, but enthusiastic supporter of a number of budget-busting policies, including generous tax cuts that went disproportionately to the wealthiest Americans, while saddling future generations of Americans with enormous debts from waging multiple, unfunded wars. On the stimulus, Ryan walked right into a straight-right hand with his guard down, somehow forgetting that everyone who follows politics is aware that he secured tens of millions of dollars for companies that donated money to his Congressional campaigns, saying exactly the opposite of what he is saying now – that it was a good way to save and create jobs during an economic catastrophe.
On Social Security, Biden reminded everyone that Congressman Ryan carried the water on President Bush's plan to privatize the program, which would have cost more than a trillion dollars in fees to Wall Street in the largest transfer of public to private wealth in our country's history, while putting it in riskier vehicles right before the economic collapse, which would have all but certainly bankrupted the program. As I've written before, the idea that Social Security is going bankrupt is – in Vice President Biden's words – a bunch of stuff. Does it need to be adjusted, yes, though not any time soon. Biden turning to the cameras and asking, Folks, who are you gonna trust on this, me or the guys that wanted to give it to Wall Street, just after Ryan gave the Chicken Little bit, was the best meat and potatoes line of the night.
Foreign policy was where the wheels came off for Ryan, who has almost as little experience in the arena as his running mate – which is to say almost none. While the President's experience entering office was comparable to Ryan's and only a little better than that of President Bush when he took office, he, like W. in 2004, now has four years as Commander in Chief under his belt, while Biden can credibly claim to be one of the most experienced foreign policy experts in the federal government. That was the most discernable difference between the two on Thursday night.
Ryan was lost in the woods on Middle East policy, able only to parrot the talking points of the hawkish think tank crowd that is advising the ticket. I'm not sure how many people caught this, but he couldn't articulate an answer when the Vice President asked who he would rather fight in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan – American soldiers or the Afghans they've trained. This is a good moment to take a look at exactly who those advisers are. Chief adviser Dan Senor was one of the neoconservative hawks who helped design the Bush's administration's Middle East strategy, as well as Senor's Project for a New American Century classmate John Bolton. It's no surprise that Ryan recently said he thinks the defense budget should grow every year. That's right out of the PNAC playbook, which also advocates maximum presence in the Middle East in order to project American military force in the region.
Vice President Biden crystallized the mission: we went for one reason, to get the people responsible for 9/11. Biden asked everyone to "settle down" on the Iran issue, pointing out correctly that Iran is much further from being a nuclear threat to anyone than is being presented. He pointed out the effectiveness of the sanctions and made it clear, we've gotten the guys we came for and we are leaving in 2014. Statements from Ryan like: so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists sounded eerily reminiscent of Iraq-era Bushspeak. Biden called Ryan's notion that pulling out would give our allies reason to trust us less a “bizarre statement,” noting that 49 allies have already signed on to the withdrawal time-line.
On taxes, Ryan defended the agree on policy now, fill in the details later approach that his ticket is running on. When even the moderator suggested that the math doesn't add up, Ryan, like Romney last week, reluctantly mumbled something about it being paid for with future growth. Here again, I think the American people are rightfully gun-shy. They've suffered a trillion dollars in the debt they're told to be so frightened of at the hands of a decade of tax cuts, which never paid for themselves as promised. There are (very limited) historical examples of significant growth following tax cuts – but none of them are drawn from situations where rates were already at historic lows and especially none after years of major deficit spending.
Ryan made the pitch for middle-class help, but it hinged on tax cuts that will disproportionately go to the wealthiest of all Americans. Here, Biden managed to articulate better than the President last week that 97 percent of the small businesses taxed as individuals are under the $250,000 threshold, noting that among the 3 percent who would be subject to increases, were the Bush tax cuts allowed to expire, were “small businesses” like hedge funds and billionaire investors, none of whom were on the table to pay more than the current historic lows that they are subject to now under Ryan and Romney, who would actually see them pay less, while further aiding them by repealing the estate tax at a cost of billions more.
Here's where the nuts and bolts are on the White House's side. While the current economy is far from ideal, the solutions being offered by their opponents sound eerily similar to the policies that preceded us arriving at the worst economic mess in almost a hundred years. It seems that the American people are again being told that the only way to avoid a debt crisis and get the country moving back in the right direction is to cut taxes on the wealthy and reduce benefits in social programs for the middle class and the poor, all while we aggressively move toward armed conflict in the same region of the world where we just ran up a trillion dollars in wars on the national credit card, in order to avoid losing credibility.
Plus, the plan for avoiding the "debt crisis" Ryan kept forewarning of Thursday night, includes adding $6 trillion to the debt over the next 10 years. Yes, you heard me correctly – the party screaming about the financial cliff acknowledges that on their plan, they would still be adding to the debt (not reducing it) if they left office after not one but two terms, and that doesn't even include the additional wars they seem so intent on waging. No wonder Ryan himself was so intent on obfuscating on health care reform. As he said, when you don't have a plan that works, you have no choice but to try and scare people.
In the end, it all ends up sounding like the Romney/Ryan ticket is asking Americans who've been hit hardest in the last couple of years to sacrifice even more, while those who've seen their fortunes grow the most benefit, all so that we can spend the money (and borrow much more) financing another unnecessary war that will mean little to them beyond bigger increases in the price of gasoline and meat. Solving this debt crisis? It would seem that's left up to a future administration. That my friends, is what they call a tough sell.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.