Commentary Magazine


Topic: vice presidential debate

Does Biden Speak for the Administration on Iran?

Obviously Jeffrey Goldberg is no rosy-eyed optimist when it comes to the threat of a nuclear Iran, but he’s also spent the last few years trying to assure everyone that President Obama is dead serious about preventing the bomb. Which is why it’s surprising to see this relatively tough criticism of the administration in his latest column:

Romney was handed an additional gift last week by Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past three years, I’ve been impressed with Obama’s seriousness on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the urgency with which he treats the subject, and the measures he has taken to keep the regime from crossing the atomic threshold. But last week, in the vice-presidential debate, Biden attempted to portray Representative Paul Ryan as a hysteric on the subject, even though Ryan’s seriousness on Iran matches the president’s.

In so doing, Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran. Biden said that when Ryan “talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know — we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk — what are they talking about?”

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Obviously Jeffrey Goldberg is no rosy-eyed optimist when it comes to the threat of a nuclear Iran, but he’s also spent the last few years trying to assure everyone that President Obama is dead serious about preventing the bomb. Which is why it’s surprising to see this relatively tough criticism of the administration in his latest column:

Romney was handed an additional gift last week by Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past three years, I’ve been impressed with Obama’s seriousness on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the urgency with which he treats the subject, and the measures he has taken to keep the regime from crossing the atomic threshold. But last week, in the vice-presidential debate, Biden attempted to portray Representative Paul Ryan as a hysteric on the subject, even though Ryan’s seriousness on Iran matches the president’s.

In so doing, Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran. Biden said that when Ryan “talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know — we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk — what are they talking about?”

Goldberg writes that Biden “downplayed the importance of confronting Iran,” and calls this a “dramatic, deviation from the administration’s line on Iran.” He notes that Biden was wrong in both substance (an Iranian bomb isn’t that far off when you look at the work they’ve done so far) and tone (yes, it actually is a big deal).

It’s definitely unsettling to hear the vice president dismiss concern over a nuclear Iran as “bluster” and “loose talk,” the same terms used by people like Stephen Walt to smear journalists like Goldberg as warmongers. But was Biden off-message, or just clumsily parroting the administration’s internal sentiment? Keep in mind that “bluster” and “loose talk” were the same two words used by President Obama to dismiss Republican critics of his Iran policy at AIPAC last spring. Kind of a coincidence, no? Recently, Obama also referred to Israeli concern over the nuclear program as “noise.” The difference may just be that Obama phrased his administration’s line a bit more carefully, which wouldn’t be a surprise considering, well … Biden.

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Biden’s Lie About Religious Freedom

Here’s one final note about the vice presidential debate. Both Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan had their weak moments. Ryan couldn’t explain what Mitt Romney would do differently in the future to deal with the tragedy in Syria even if he was right about President Obama’s mistakes. He was also flummoxed by Biden’s comeback about his request for stimulus funds for his Wisconsin congressional district, something for which he should have been prepared. The list of Biden’s mistakes is much longer. Biden told a flat out lie when he claimed he opposed the Iraq War and the add-on of the prescription drug plan to Medicare. He voted for both of the wars and the free drugs for seniors. But as bad as that was, far more offensive was the lie about the administration’s attack on religious freedom via ObamaCare.

In response to Ryan’s accurate charge that the HHS Mandate under ObamaCare forces religious institutions to violate their consciences to pay for services their faith opposes, Biden claimed the following:

With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institution—Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital—none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, one might ask Biden if Georgetown is not being compelled to pay for contraception, then what exactly was behind the ruckus about Sandra Fluke’s complaints about the university’s refusal to do so. Biden’s claim was not only an offensive falsehood, it was a stupid one since even his liberal supporters know that is what is happening.

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Here’s one final note about the vice presidential debate. Both Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan had their weak moments. Ryan couldn’t explain what Mitt Romney would do differently in the future to deal with the tragedy in Syria even if he was right about President Obama’s mistakes. He was also flummoxed by Biden’s comeback about his request for stimulus funds for his Wisconsin congressional district, something for which he should have been prepared. The list of Biden’s mistakes is much longer. Biden told a flat out lie when he claimed he opposed the Iraq War and the add-on of the prescription drug plan to Medicare. He voted for both of the wars and the free drugs for seniors. But as bad as that was, far more offensive was the lie about the administration’s attack on religious freedom via ObamaCare.

In response to Ryan’s accurate charge that the HHS Mandate under ObamaCare forces religious institutions to violate their consciences to pay for services their faith opposes, Biden claimed the following:

With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institution—Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital—none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, one might ask Biden if Georgetown is not being compelled to pay for contraception, then what exactly was behind the ruckus about Sandra Fluke’s complaints about the university’s refusal to do so. Biden’s claim was not only an offensive falsehood, it was a stupid one since even his liberal supporters know that is what is happening.

In truth, the attempt to force both church institutions and individuals to bow to the dictates of the president’s signature health care legislation is the subject of legal challenges that are still making their way through the courts. As the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty noted today, there are currently 33 such cases representing over 100 hospitals, universities, businesses and schools that are seeking to defend their constitutional rights against the administration’s attempt to compel them to do exactly what Biden says they are not being asked to do. These plaintiffs face potential government fines of millions of dollars, but they are determined to stand up for their faith and their beliefs in spite of the government’s efforts to intimidate them.

There is a lively debate going on about the future of health care, but there may be no more insidious aspect to the ObamaCare issue than this threat to religious liberty. Both Biden and his party support the HHS Mandate, something that was made abundantly clear at the Democratic Convention at which Ms. Fluke was unveiled as a prime time liberal star. But the vice president’s willingness to lie about that support tells us that he understands just how unpopular this stand is outside of the precincts of the left. He should have had the guts and the honesty to say so.

Democrats repeating their “liar, liar” mantra about Romney and Ryan (and claiming that this justified Biden’s boorishness) need to own up to the barefaced lies Biden told at the debate.

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Biden’s Reckless Rhetoric on Afghanistan

I just hope the Taliban were too busying planting roadside bombs, shooting school girls, extorting merchants, or doing whatever is they normally do at 5:30 a.m.–when the vice presidential debate started by Kabul time–to watch the Biden-Ryan slugfest. Because if they had tuned in, they would have heard a message from the vice president–the deputy satan–that would have been music to their ears (if, that is, they did not prohibit music as contrary to their extremist beliefs).

Here is what Biden had to say about Afghanistan:

It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security. We have trained over 315,000, mostly without incident. There have been more than two dozen cases of green-on-blue where Americans have been killed. If we do not — if the measures the military has taken do not take hold, we will not go on joint patrols. We will not train in the field. We’ll only train in the — in the Army bases that exist there.

But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we’re going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We’ve been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we’re doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security.

It’s their responsibility, not America’s.

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I just hope the Taliban were too busying planting roadside bombs, shooting school girls, extorting merchants, or doing whatever is they normally do at 5:30 a.m.–when the vice presidential debate started by Kabul time–to watch the Biden-Ryan slugfest. Because if they had tuned in, they would have heard a message from the vice president–the deputy satan–that would have been music to their ears (if, that is, they did not prohibit music as contrary to their extremist beliefs).

Here is what Biden had to say about Afghanistan:

It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security. We have trained over 315,000, mostly without incident. There have been more than two dozen cases of green-on-blue where Americans have been killed. If we do not — if the measures the military has taken do not take hold, we will not go on joint patrols. We will not train in the field. We’ll only train in the — in the Army bases that exist there.

But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we’re going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We’ve been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we’re doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security.

It’s their responsibility, not America’s.

But we did not invade Afghanistan in 2001 (a war that Biden supported, as he supported the one in Iraq) as a favor to the Afghans. We invaded because we had been attacked from its soil and wanted to punish the perpetrators and, more importantly, to prevent a recurrence in the future. Yet if we leave prematurely there is a very real danger that the Afghan security forces will fall apart and the Taliban will come back into power, bringing their buddies in al-Qaeda with them.

It is precisely to avert this danger that Biden’s boss, the president, signed a Strategic Partnership Accord with Hamid Karzai this past spring, pledging to support the Afghan government until at least 2014. Biden might have mentioned this accord, which could be seen as a foreign policy achievement of this administration. He did not. Nor did he mention the need to maintain a residual force of American trainers and Special Operations personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, even though all serious military experts agree that such a force will be absolutely essential to buttress the fledgling Afghan National Security Forces, which lack key “enablers,” such as airpower, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and route-clearance vehicles.

All that Biden said, over and over again, is that we are going to pull out completely in 2014. Obviously that message was intended for domestic consumption, to win votes among a war-weary electorate. But it will resonate on the battlefield and it will do much to buttress the morale of the enemies that 68,000 U.S. troops are still fighting.

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Why Dems Loved Biden’s Boorish Behavior

The morning after the vice presidential debate, Democrats are delighted. Vice President Joe Biden’s obnoxious display was exactly what was needed to cheer them up after a week of morose speculation about why President Obama was so passive and uninspired at last week’s first presidential debate with Mitt Romney. Indeed, the more Biden giggled, smirked and interrupted Paul Ryan, the better they liked it. While his condescending and bullying behavior contradicted liberal doctrine about conservatives being the ones guilty of polluting the public square with political incivility, it embodied their complete contempt for both Republicans and their ideas. Biden’s nastiness may have re-invigorated a Democratic base that wanted nothing so much as to tell their opponents to shut up, even if it may have also alienated a great many independents. But with the main focus of the election still on the remaining two presidential debates, it’s not clear that President Obama can profit from Biden’s example.

The reason for this is not very complicated. The Democrats cheering on Biden’s bullying, while ignoring the fact that he had nothing to offer on the future of entitlements and his disgraceful alibis about Libya, did so because at bottom they really do not feel Republicans or conservatives are worthy of respect or decency. Though they rarely own up to it, they don’t think Republicans are so much wrong as they are bad. By contrast, most Republicans think Democrats are wrong, not evil. Ryan, whose polite behavior was entirely proper but was made to appear passive and even weak when compared to his bloviating opponent, demonstrated this paradigm by patiently trying to explain his positions even when he was constantly interrupted.

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The morning after the vice presidential debate, Democrats are delighted. Vice President Joe Biden’s obnoxious display was exactly what was needed to cheer them up after a week of morose speculation about why President Obama was so passive and uninspired at last week’s first presidential debate with Mitt Romney. Indeed, the more Biden giggled, smirked and interrupted Paul Ryan, the better they liked it. While his condescending and bullying behavior contradicted liberal doctrine about conservatives being the ones guilty of polluting the public square with political incivility, it embodied their complete contempt for both Republicans and their ideas. Biden’s nastiness may have re-invigorated a Democratic base that wanted nothing so much as to tell their opponents to shut up, even if it may have also alienated a great many independents. But with the main focus of the election still on the remaining two presidential debates, it’s not clear that President Obama can profit from Biden’s example.

The reason for this is not very complicated. The Democrats cheering on Biden’s bullying, while ignoring the fact that he had nothing to offer on the future of entitlements and his disgraceful alibis about Libya, did so because at bottom they really do not feel Republicans or conservatives are worthy of respect or decency. Though they rarely own up to it, they don’t think Republicans are so much wrong as they are bad. By contrast, most Republicans think Democrats are wrong, not evil. Ryan, whose polite behavior was entirely proper but was made to appear passive and even weak when compared to his bloviating opponent, demonstrated this paradigm by patiently trying to explain his positions even when he was constantly interrupted.

Hard-core Democrats would have been happy had Obama treated Romney the same way Biden did Ryan (some even falsely claim that Romney behaved in a similar manner to Biden), and there were plenty of signs that he shares his number two’s contempt for the opposition. But while a vice president, especially one who has often been treated as something of a national joke during his four years in office, might be allowed to get away with playing the buffoon, a president cannot. That means next week the president will have to again behave like a grown up. Given the town hall meeting format at the Hofstra University debate, it will be even more important for him to be as civil as Biden was rude. If, as is very likely, Romney again gives a strong performance and doesn’t allow himself to be run roughshod over (as perhaps Ryan did at times), then the odds are Democrats will again be unhappy with their leader’s showing.

The problem here is not just that presidents and would-be commanders-in-chief must appear presidential. It is that the liberal base of the president’s party is so filled with anger and contempt for Republicans that they can’t abide even a show of civility from their champions.

Though President Obama may decide to show up and demonstrate a bit more involvement and passion in the upcoming debates, he is unlikely to satisfy his supporters’ need to bash the GOP. Though liberals are saying Biden has stopped the bleeding begun last week in Denver, the president’s failure to misbehave in the same manner is bound to raise the same complaints next week.

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Biden’s Behavior Will Become the Story

As I predicted yesterday, Vice President Biden came out aggressive and swinging against his opponent, GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Even when it wasn’t his turn to speak, Biden interjected himself into Ryan’s speaking time. According to RNC Chairman Reince Preibus, Biden interrupted Ryan a total of 82 times. CNN instant polling after the debate showed 70 percent of respondents noting that Biden, not Ryan, spent the debate attacking his opponent (compare this to 19 percent for Ryan).

As Jonathan noted last night, Biden’s incivility could end up causing him more harm than good with voters in the long term. CNN and NBC anchors immediately weighed in on Biden’s tendency to smirk and laugh during his opponent’s allotted time. In the age of split-screen television, Biden’s aggression may have come off well with the Democratic base, but it likely did nothing but turn off undecided voters. His behavior, as already noted by the GOP’s research team, was deemed inappropriate at best by many in the mainstream media.

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As I predicted yesterday, Vice President Biden came out aggressive and swinging against his opponent, GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Even when it wasn’t his turn to speak, Biden interjected himself into Ryan’s speaking time. According to RNC Chairman Reince Preibus, Biden interrupted Ryan a total of 82 times. CNN instant polling after the debate showed 70 percent of respondents noting that Biden, not Ryan, spent the debate attacking his opponent (compare this to 19 percent for Ryan).

As Jonathan noted last night, Biden’s incivility could end up causing him more harm than good with voters in the long term. CNN and NBC anchors immediately weighed in on Biden’s tendency to smirk and laugh during his opponent’s allotted time. In the age of split-screen television, Biden’s aggression may have come off well with the Democratic base, but it likely did nothing but turn off undecided voters. His behavior, as already noted by the GOP’s research team, was deemed inappropriate at best by many in the mainstream media.

There were few sound-bite worthy comments from Paul Ryan tonight, save for perhaps his telling Biden, “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.” After a debate that many in the mainstream media and instant polls are calling a tie, the GOP has already settled on a message for how they think the vice presidential debate went down, and it’s Biden’s physical reactions during Ryan’s remarks on Libya, Iran and Afghanistan. They released a web video less than two hours after the conclusion of the debate highlighting Biden’s worst laughs, gestures, and smirks:

We’ll see how many Americans actually watched this debate, but it appears that enough people were thrown off by Biden’s behavior to make that, not his words, the story after last night’s debate. After the last debate, many in the news media commented on Obama’s much more subtle smirk (the GOP even made an ad out of that, too). One can only wonder why Biden wasn’t instructed by his debate coaches to tone down the condescension instead of ramping it up several notches.

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Did Biden’s Incivility Work For Him?

The vice presidential debate provided a test case about the way Americans think about civility. In terms of substance, both Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan had their moments of strength. Ryan was strong on foreign policy, while Biden squirmed and threw the intelligence community under the bus about administration lies about the Benghazi attack. Biden delivered class warfare body blows about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe.

But the main difference between the two wasn’t so much their competing liberal and conservative ideas and arguments. It was the blatant disrespect shown by Biden for his opponent. Biden giggled, smirked and mugged throughout the debate almost every time Ryan spoke. He also interrupted the Republican almost at will without moderator Martha Raddatz saying a word to call him to order. It may be that Democrats were so dismayed by President Obama’s passive performance in his debate last week that Biden was urged to be more aggressive. But what he did wasn’t merely aggressive; he was openly rude. That may have encouraged the Democratic base, but it remains to be seen whether that is the sort of thing most Americans are comfortable with.

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The vice presidential debate provided a test case about the way Americans think about civility. In terms of substance, both Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan had their moments of strength. Ryan was strong on foreign policy, while Biden squirmed and threw the intelligence community under the bus about administration lies about the Benghazi attack. Biden delivered class warfare body blows about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe.

But the main difference between the two wasn’t so much their competing liberal and conservative ideas and arguments. It was the blatant disrespect shown by Biden for his opponent. Biden giggled, smirked and mugged throughout the debate almost every time Ryan spoke. He also interrupted the Republican almost at will without moderator Martha Raddatz saying a word to call him to order. It may be that Democrats were so dismayed by President Obama’s passive performance in his debate last week that Biden was urged to be more aggressive. But what he did wasn’t merely aggressive; he was openly rude. That may have encouraged the Democratic base, but it remains to be seen whether that is the sort of thing most Americans are comfortable with.

Democratic spinners will say he is a “happy warrior,” that his nastiness and aggressiveness bloodied the Republicans and that it doesn’t matter that the way he did it was embarrassing. They may have a point. People probably won’t decide not to vote for Obama because they think the giggling, smirking and interrupting was beneath the dignity of the office he holds. If Biden’s job was simply to rally the base and attack his opponents, then his arrogant condescension will help the Democrats regain their momentum after a week in which they’ve lost a lot of ground.

But it is also possible that a lot of those Americans who saw the debate, even those who are Democrats but especially independents and undecided voters, will not think much of a vice president of the United States acting more like a schoolyard bully than a statesman.

Many Democrats will applaud Biden’s buffoonery and falsely claim that it was no different from Romney’s demeanor last week even though there is no possible comparison. Republicans can console themselves that while Ryan did seem a little nervous at times, he wasn’t intimidated. Nor did Biden succeed in painting Ryan as the monster that the Democrats claim him to be. Ryan also passed the plausibility threshold as a potential president because of his strong knowledge of foreign policy.

The bottom line here is that neither side won or lost. But it is also possible that Biden’s misbehavior will be remembered with distaste long after this election is decided.

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The Myth of Biden’s Likability

Going into the debate tonight, there’s one major false assumption that needs to be cleared up: the myth of Joe Biden’s likability. A common theme in the pre-debate coverage is that Paul Ryan needs to come off as less wonky to balance out that folksy, blue-collar persona Joe Biden likes to adopt. It’s good advice, but it also shouldn’t give anyone the impression that Biden has some remarkable ability to connect with the average American, or that Ryan is a socially-awkward number-cruncher. Actually, the polls show the complete opposite.

And by “the polls,” I mean all of the polls. Ryan has scored higher favorability ratings than Biden in every national, non-partisan poll since he was chosen as Romney’s running mate, as The Hill reported last month:

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Going into the debate tonight, there’s one major false assumption that needs to be cleared up: the myth of Joe Biden’s likability. A common theme in the pre-debate coverage is that Paul Ryan needs to come off as less wonky to balance out that folksy, blue-collar persona Joe Biden likes to adopt. It’s good advice, but it also shouldn’t give anyone the impression that Biden has some remarkable ability to connect with the average American, or that Ryan is a socially-awkward number-cruncher. Actually, the polls show the complete opposite.

And by “the polls,” I mean all of the polls. Ryan has scored higher favorability ratings than Biden in every national, non-partisan poll since he was chosen as Romney’s running mate, as The Hill reported last month:

Paul Ryan has had a higher favorability rating than Vice President Biden in every major nonpartisan national poll since the Wisconsin lawmaker was picked for the GOP vice presidential slot.

In these polls, Ryan averaged a likability factor of about 7.6 percentage points higher than Biden, and he even bested President Obama’s favorability rating four out of six times.

The most recent Pew Research poll this week found Biden underwater on likability (51 percent viewed him unfavorably, 39 percent favorably):

Vice President Biden heads into Thursday’s debate with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) with opinion stacked against him. According to a new Pew Research Center poll, more voters view the vice president unfavorably than favorably by a 51 percent to 39 percent margin.

Opinions on GOP vice presidential nominee Ryan are more evenly divided, with 44 percent of voters viewing him favorably and 40 percent viewing him unfavorably.

I’m not sure where the myth of Biden’s likability comes from, but it’s not backed up by the numbers.

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The Battle of the Debate Prep Surrogates

If we can get any indication on the tone of tonight’s debate from Paul Ryan and Joe Biden’s chosen debate preparation opponents, it will be two things: wonky and heated.

Biden’s team has tapped Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a strong opponent of Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Van Hollen’s participation in Biden’s debate prep shows just how seriously the vice president is taking Ryan’s plan, and just how badly the Obama campaign wants to put the Romney camp on the defensive tonight. In advance of tonight’s debate the Obama campaign has released a new ad featuring Van Hollen; The Hill reports on its contents:

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If we can get any indication on the tone of tonight’s debate from Paul Ryan and Joe Biden’s chosen debate preparation opponents, it will be two things: wonky and heated.

Biden’s team has tapped Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a strong opponent of Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Van Hollen’s participation in Biden’s debate prep shows just how seriously the vice president is taking Ryan’s plan, and just how badly the Obama campaign wants to put the Romney camp on the defensive tonight. In advance of tonight’s debate the Obama campaign has released a new ad featuring Van Hollen; The Hill reports on its contents:

Ryan “will either have to stand by the extreme positions he and (Republican nominee Mitt Romney) hold, like turning Medicare into a voucher program that ends the program’s guarantee to seniors, or he will have to flat out deny their existence, as Gov. Romney did in last week’s debate, when he denied the plan to cut taxes for the wealthiest few at the expense of the middle class, a plan they have touted for months,” Van Hollen said in the ad.

During Van Hollen’s speech at the DNC last month, fear-mongering on Ryan’s plan and Bush-blaming were the focal points. He stated,

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s obsession with tax breaks for the wealthy is part of a rigid ideology. Give people like Mitt Romney a break, and hope something will trickle down and lift others up. But this theory crashed in the real world. We all lived through the recession when jobs went down and the deficit went up. So when they say they’ll turn around the economy, beware. They mean a U-turn back to this failed theory that lifted the yachts while other boats ran aground.

What does Obama expect of Biden’s debate style? CBS News reported last night,

In an interview with radio host Tom Joyner today, President Obama described himself as “too polite” in his debate, but predicted a strong performance from the Vice President. “Biden, I think, will be terrific in the debate this week,” he said

In stark contrast to the partisan rhetoric of Van Hollen, Paul Ryan’s chosen debate opponent, former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson is a calm, experienced and successful litigator who successfully argued the Bush v. Gore case before the Supreme Court in the aftermath of the 2000 election.

If we can gain any insight from this Obama interview and Van Hollen’s aggressive attacks on Ryan’s budget plan over the past four weeks, we’re likely to see Biden coming out swinging hard against Ryan’s economic proposals tonight in Kentucky. We’ve yet to see many examples of Ryan’s debating style, but given his choice of Olson as a sparring and debate preparation partner, it’s likely we’ll see Ryan try to remain calm, cool and on message. We’ll see in a few hours how Americans respond to an aggressive sitting vice president as he spars with a well-informed and level-headed opponent, but if Biden attacks too forcefully, he could come off worse than President Obama’s meek performance last week.

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The Real Pressure is on Ryan Tonight

When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate in August, Republicans spoke about how they couldn’t wait to see the Wisconsin congressman take apart Vice President Biden. But two months later, the stakes in that anticipated match-up are turning out to be far higher than anyone thought. After Mitt Romney’s smashing victory over President Obama last week in the first presidential debate, rather than just being a test of the strengths of the lower halves of each ticket, the vice presidential debate is now seen as a crucial second round that could help shape the rest of the race.

That sounds like an inviting opportunity for conservatives who could be said to have fished their wish when Ryan was put on the ticket. Ryan is the intellectual leader of his party as well as its most prominent advocate of entitlement reform and has long been seen as one of the brightest young stars in the GOP. He is an experienced Washington debater in the House as well as in other forums, such as his highly publicized confrontation with President Obama during a 2010 White House health care summit. But tonight’s encounter is a very different kind of animal. While Biden’s weaknesses and strengths are well known, the pressure is on Ryan to show that he belongs on the biggest political stage. If he fails, it could be a body blow to Republicans who in the last week have begun to feel as if victory in November is within their reach.

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When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate in August, Republicans spoke about how they couldn’t wait to see the Wisconsin congressman take apart Vice President Biden. But two months later, the stakes in that anticipated match-up are turning out to be far higher than anyone thought. After Mitt Romney’s smashing victory over President Obama last week in the first presidential debate, rather than just being a test of the strengths of the lower halves of each ticket, the vice presidential debate is now seen as a crucial second round that could help shape the rest of the race.

That sounds like an inviting opportunity for conservatives who could be said to have fished their wish when Ryan was put on the ticket. Ryan is the intellectual leader of his party as well as its most prominent advocate of entitlement reform and has long been seen as one of the brightest young stars in the GOP. He is an experienced Washington debater in the House as well as in other forums, such as his highly publicized confrontation with President Obama during a 2010 White House health care summit. But tonight’s encounter is a very different kind of animal. While Biden’s weaknesses and strengths are well known, the pressure is on Ryan to show that he belongs on the biggest political stage. If he fails, it could be a body blow to Republicans who in the last week have begun to feel as if victory in November is within their reach.

Given his high profile in Washington for a member of the House of Representatives and his reputation as one of his party’s leading talking heads, it seems absurd to think of Ryan as an unknown factor in the veep debate. But the truth is, he has never been in this kind of situation before: head-to-head with a competitor, with the entire nation watching. His ability to deal with this sort of pressure and to deploy his considerable body of knowledge in such a way as to impress upon the public his seriousness and competence is the X factor.

Democrats may be counting on Biden to retrieve what the president lost last week, but the odds are that he is going into the debate feeling cocky rather than pressured. Biden’s high opinion of himself is legendary in Washington. It’s likely Biden will come out swinging at Ryan both because Democrats think Obama was too passive against Romney and also because he believes Ryan is vulnerable as the author of a controversial budget proposal that Romney has not completely embraced.

That means Ryan will have to keep his cool and respond like the wonk he is with logic, facts and figures, as well as a compelling defense of the philosophy of limited government and individual freedom that he has long championed.

That ought to be right in his wheelhouse, but Ryan has very little margin for error. A hostile press will jump on any hesitation, let alone a mistake on his part. If he falters, it will sink not only him but also Republican hopes, since you can take it for granted that any gaffe on his part will become the main story of the debate no matter what blunders Biden commits.

Despite efforts by liberals to treat him as a wise statesman, such as this fawning piece by James Traub in Foreign Policy, the country already knows Biden is a pompous fool. He will play the foreign policy expert even though he has been wrong about virtually every big question his whole career and has been defeated in every policy battle within the administration. But he is also an experienced and articulate political fighter who can hold his own on the stump and in debates.

Biden will hit Ryan hard about entitlement reform as well as foreign policy. He will attempt to portray him as the man in the Democrat ads pushing granny off the cliff. Ryan may be used to this, but most of the country has yet to see him in this sort of tussle. Debunking the liberal narrative is his specialty, but what we will find out is whether he can do so now when the pressure is greatest and the stakes are as high as they possibly can be. If Ryan weathers this storm with good humor and sharp replies, he will move his party one step closer to victory as well as to solidify his standing as the future of the GOP. But the pressure is on him to prove that he can do it. Stay tuned.

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Are Conservatives Overconfident About the Ryan-Biden Debate?

Among the chatter heading into tomorrow night’s vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and current Vice President Joe Biden, it’s easy to pick up on the confidence conservatives have in Ryan and their dismissive attitude toward Biden. Both of those are well founded, since Ryan is a solid debater and in strong command of the facts, while Biden is … Biden. Furthermore, they seem to be making a kind of Talmudic a fortiori argument about the general momentum of the campaigns: if Mitt Romney could so thoroughly defeat Barack Obama, kal v’chomer Paul Ryan could dismantle Joe Biden.

But there are three things conservatives should keep in mind. First, at the Democratic National Convention, Biden was better than Obama was—and it wasn’t even close. Biden had the energy and the populist appeal—two staples of his political persona—while Obama was saddled with presidential exhaustion and a marked lack of ideas or inspirational rhetoric. Biden is the one candidate among the four who is capable of projecting warmth on command. If the Joe Biden from the DNC shows up tomorrow night, Ryan will have his work cut out for him.

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Among the chatter heading into tomorrow night’s vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and current Vice President Joe Biden, it’s easy to pick up on the confidence conservatives have in Ryan and their dismissive attitude toward Biden. Both of those are well founded, since Ryan is a solid debater and in strong command of the facts, while Biden is … Biden. Furthermore, they seem to be making a kind of Talmudic a fortiori argument about the general momentum of the campaigns: if Mitt Romney could so thoroughly defeat Barack Obama, kal v’chomer Paul Ryan could dismantle Joe Biden.

But there are three things conservatives should keep in mind. First, at the Democratic National Convention, Biden was better than Obama was—and it wasn’t even close. Biden had the energy and the populist appeal—two staples of his political persona—while Obama was saddled with presidential exhaustion and a marked lack of ideas or inspirational rhetoric. Biden is the one candidate among the four who is capable of projecting warmth on command. If the Joe Biden from the DNC shows up tomorrow night, Ryan will have his work cut out for him.

Second, the lead-up to the first presidential debate was filled with reminders of the memorable moments of debates past. What did they generally have in common? They often had nothing to do with the substance of the arguments, but rather with nonverbal cues. Al Gore’s sigh; George H.W. Bush looking at his watch; George W. Bush’s brilliant but almost imperceptible nod at Gore when Gore tried to crowd him. And even when the moments were about the words spoken, what were they? “You’re no Jack Kennedy”; “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”; and so on.

This is not to discount completely the role of substance. In fact, the first Romney-Obama debate was widely viewed as being more substantive than many previous debates, low on zingers and high on numbers, and this perception contributed to Romney’s margin of victory. Ryan will most certainly have substance on his side, and it will be of service. But the fact that one statement, let alone an audible exhalation, can rule the memory of these debates should be a warning to Ryan that debate performances are performances, sometimes above all else.

Third, Ryan may be taken aback by the extent to which Biden will invent alternate history and present it as fact. In 2008, Biden did exactly that, at one point offering a response on Lebanon that was quite possibly the most ridiculous statement ever made at a vice presidential debate. (If you need your memory jogged about it, please re-read Michael Totten’s post about it on this site.)

Biden gets a free pass—that’s the rule. In 2008, neither the moderator nor Sarah Palin called Biden on his repeated factually challenged ramblings. If Biden is not forced to work within observable reality, the debate will be conducted on his terms. Biden has been wrong on pretty much every major foreign-policy question in his time in the Senate, but foreign policy is not Ryan’s bread and butter. Will he be prepared enough to correct the record each time Biden wanders off?

On paper, the smart money would always be on a candidate like Ryan against someone like Biden. But the superior candidates have lost countless such debates over the years, for a variety of reasons. And overconfidence is often at the top of that list.

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