Live-Blogging the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate

Vice President Joseph Biden won that debate.  He cannot do as much to benefit President Obama’s campaign as Governor Romney did to benefit his own last week, but he has set the terms of President Obama’s counter.  “The Governor has no clothes,” seems to be the line the Obama campaign is taking in response to the 1st Presidential Debate.  This is a winning position, considering Governor Romney’s tough-sounding stands but fundamentally-contradictory proposals on health care reform, tax and budget policy and the deficit, and in particular Romney and Ryan’s potentially-dangerous “tough talk” and lack of serious policy alternatives on Iran and other foreign policy issues.  The immediately-following CBS News poll found the Vice President beat the Congressman, 50%-31%.  That was my impression, but that’s just 1 poll.  In any case, the town hall debate at Hofstra University next week probably won’t provide such an opportunity, but whenever the President faces a string of promises of tax cuts that aren’t paid for or tries to score political points by offering health care reforms that are already law under the Affordable Care Act, he now has the theme in which he should frame his counter:

The Governor has no clothes.

10:28 pm: The closing statements were an interesting recapitulation of what preceded in the debate: Vice President Biden said that this election is about people like his veteran son, his parents, and his blue-collar former neighbors back in Scranton, PA.  He attacked Congressman Ryan for calling 30% of Americans “takers,” a crypto-Randian characterization, and Governor Romney for calling 47% of Americans entitled for not paying any income tax and living on government benefits (a conflated and confused allegation on the Governor’s part).

Congressman Ryan focused on Republican talking points, looking directly into the camera.  He made a case for the need for a leadership change and claimed that the current policy course is fiscally unsustainable.  He looked directly into the camera as he spoke, explicitly asked for our vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket, and closed with “Thank you.”  If I may veer into a discussion of optics again, I think Ryan sounded too rehearsed–a product, in part, of his relative inexperience at the top level of exposure in national politics.

10:22 pm: Vice President Biden answers the question about the nastiness of the campaign thus far by saying people in government have 1 sacred obligation–to protect soldiers going into war and to take care of them when they return; the rest are matters of politics and policy.

Congressman Ryan says again that the President Obama is running against Governor Romney because he won’t run on his record.  I myself wish the President would run on his record; I for one am happy to vote for him on account of it.

10:15 pm: Ms. Raddatz asks the 2 candidates how their Catholic faith will inform their role in a Presidential administration.  Both do the usual thing: Ryan believes Catholicism means defending the principle that human life begins at conception, while Vice President Biden claims that his faith informs his sense of a social mission.  Congressman Ryan makes the argument–popular with Conservatives this year–that the Obama Administration’s contraception coverage rules under the Affordable Care Act constitute a violation of “religious liberty.”  The Vice President goes into the attack against the Romney-Ryan ticket’s opposition to abortion in all but “emergency” cases of rape, incest or danger to a woman’s health.  He sounds the more-passionate, though I feel he went further on the limb in making his answer into an attack.  Congressman Ryan has been strong on the Republican talking points; Vice President Biden seems more off-the-cuff and passionate, but he sounds like he thinks about these issues in their particulars more-often.

10:10 pm: The Vice President asks Congressman Ryan what he proposes we do differently with regard to the civil war in Syria; Ryan fumbles it.  Ryan, who is smart and a legitimate policy wonk, has not managed to carry that substance into the debate.  This is his fault, and Governor Romney’s.  They are getting hit on issues–tax reform, hard lines on foreign policy–where they have not actually fleshed-out serious policy proposals.  Hilariously, Ryan 1st suggests a Romney Administration would go to the United Nations.  Vice President Biden interrupts with a gasp, and argues that the Administration has already helped the Rebels in Syria–through humanitarian assistance that lightens the material burden on the rebels.  In my heart I actually lean towards Ryan’s disgust with Assad–but the Vice President makes his argument more-clearly and responsibly.

10:01 pm: Vice President Biden defends the Administration’s timetable for withdrawal of our soldiers from Afghanistan.  Ms. Raddatz asks Vice President Biden if the troop drawdown from General Petraeus’ “Surge” in Afghanistan was politically-motivated; the Vice President claims that the surge timetable was plotted-out in advance.

Congressman Ryan raises an interesting objection: The final troop drawdowns in Afghanistan will leave that country to defend itself against the Taliban while the intense summer “fighting season” is still underway.  The Vice President probably won this exchange in the eyes of the public with his assertion that properly-trained Afghan soldiers have got to do this job for themselves.  He makes note of the rise in “Green-on-Blue” (Afghan-on-NATO) military killings in Afghanistan, and says that it is time for Afghan soldiers to step up.  I lack confidence that this “take responsibility” strategy is going to have a positive ultimate outcome, but then I don’t see what more can be done to stabilize Afghanistan after 11 years.  Vice President Biden said 9 years ago that Afghanistan warranted more attention and a large troop commitment from the W. Bush Administration; it wasn’t done under that Administration, and the Obama Administration’s large commitment to that country, driven by military planning rather than political optics, has had an ambiguous impact on that country.

9:54 pm: Martha Raddatz, this debate’s fantastic moderator, just noted that Governor Romney wants to increase Defense spending while cutting tax rates and supposedly reducing the Federal budget deficit.  Congressman Ryan claimed that he merely opposes cuts to Defense spending under the “sequester” mandatory cuts imposed to the Federal Budget last year.  Congressman Ryan is wrong; Governor Romney has proposed about $2.316 trillion in new Defense spending over the next decade above what President Obama is proposing for that period–and President Obama wants to stop the sequester cuts and increase Defense spending as well.

9:49 pm: OK, I just got why people were unhappy with Jim Lehrer last week.  I have decided that I really like this moderator.  She is not willing to let claims go if she thinks they are really unsubstantiated.  She has laid down a challenge for the Congressman, asking which tax loopholes he and Romney are proposing to close while reducing all income tax rates by 1/5 without reducing Federal tax revenues.

Ryan had nothing.

9:48 pm: Congressman Ryan is posing tax reform as about small business.  He claims that “8 out of 10 businesses file their taxes as individuals, not as corporations.”  He also notes that about 2/3 of our jobs are provided by small business.

What he doesn’t note is that lowering tax rates for small businesses is not stimulative; small businesses do not drive the economy.  They need consumers, which means they have to grow on orders from big business and government, as well as those already employed in large numbers through the rest of the economy.

9:44 pm: Congressman Ryan had a clever counter, quoting the President at the beginning of his term: “If you don’t have a record to run on, you present your opponent to run from.”  He wants to argue President Obama is overwhelmed and has lost his way.  The Vice President focused on the needs of seniors who would be financially-stressed by Romney and Ryan’s Medicare proposal, saying his old home town has a lot of seniors who wouldn’t be able to pay for their health care expenses.

9:38 pm: “We will not, repeat, we will not privatize Social Security.  Imagine where we’d be if we’d listened to Romney and Ryan in the Bush years.  Their ideas are old, they are bad…”

Vice President Biden has countered many charges by Congressman Ryan.  After Ryan claimed Medicare Advantage would be underfunded by the Affordable Care Act, the Vice President noted that more seniors signed-up for Medicare Advantage after the Affordable Care Act was passed into law.  Congressman Ryan claimed that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Alice Rivlin (Clinton’s former Budget Director) were supporters of his Medicare voucher plan; the Vice President notes that both of them have disavowed the plan.

Even in its current, restrained form, Biden calls the proposed voucher plan for Medicare a hidden cut on Medicare benefits for the elderly.  He notes that Romney and Ryan both want to arbitrarily restrict Medicare expenditures without instituting needed structural reforms.

9:32 pm: Vice President Biden is winning this debate so far.  He countered an account of Governor Romney’s charitable character with a doubling-down on the successful and popular 2009 bailout and restructuring of Detroit.  He bull-rushed the Congressman at a sensitive juncture without attacking the Governor’s character, and brought the discussion back to actual policy.

Greatly to his credit, the Vice President noted Congressman Ryan’s 2009 requests to the Obama Administration for millions of dollars of stimulus funds through the ARRA (which Ryan received).  Remember, Congressman Ryan voted against the Stimulus and called it 1 of the President’s most-disastrous policies.

9:30 pm: We just witnessed a fascinating exchange, in my opinion.  A very sensitive juncture in the personality contest was just resolved in President Obama’s favor.  Congressman Ryan gave a bittersweet account of 1 of Governor Romney’s personal acts of charity; the Vice President counters with a reference to his personal tragedy which was eerily-similar to that suffered by the target of Romney’s goodwill; he then moves on to discuss Detroit.  Acknowledging that Governor Romney has done good as a private citizen, he brings the focus to Detroit: Governor Romney may be there for his neighbors, but we have it in writing that he would never have been there for Detroit.

9:25 pm: Now on to economics: The Vice President charges that Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan are complicit in a separate set of preferential rules for Wall Street; Congressman Ryan has focused on unfavorable macroeconomic statistics.  Both of these points are essentially talking points (though the Vice President has of course identified the reason we are in this slump in the 1st place).

9:18 pm: Congressman Ryan issued the allegation that President Obama declined to meet with Iraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last month; calling Prime Minister Netanyahu a friend of 39 years, the Vice President insisted that the President has met with Netanyahu as frequently as any foreign head of state.  He insists that Iran will not be allowed to build nuclear weapons, but that Congressman Ryan’s sense of the timetable is hyper-accelerated (a charge the Congressman incidentally concedes!), and says that while military action must remain an option, it is a serious option.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, the Vice President seems to say.  The issue is hyped, and the Romney-Ryan tough talk on Iran is just loose talk–irresponsible and heedless of risk.

I like the way this is going.

9:15 pm: Congressman Ryan is talking-up Iran.  He has already charged that the Obama Administration dropped the ball by not taking a rhetorical (and perhaps more-active) stand on the failed “Green Revolution” there in 2009, now he is charging the Obama Administration with caving in to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Vice President Biden says that the international community has imposed the toughest sanctions Iran has ever faced, and that they are starting to cripple that country’s economy (and he is right).

9:11 pm: Wow, this moderator seems interested in provocative questions.  She started by asking whether the Obama Administration downplayed a terrorist attack in Libya; now she is asking Congressman Ryan if Governor Romney’s “No apologies” platform of American greatness is appropriate considering that our actions abroad sometimes cause hardship, and the occasional war crime.  That’s a tough question for a running mate with mostly-domestic policy experience; Ryan turns to his talking points about the Administration’s weakness–a losing proposition, but an understandable one.

9:07 pm: Congressman Ryan mostly handles the same question well, aside from the fact that he’s focusing on minutiae.  It’s a bit ironic (and possibly hypocritical)–

Hah! Vice President Biden has interrupted Ryan, calling his lines about the President’s kowtowing around tyrants “a bunch of malarki!”  Nice scoop, Joe!

9:03 pm: Vice President Biden gets Question #1 first.  “Wasn’t this (murderous assault on our Ambassador and Foreign Service personnel in Benghazi, Libya), rather than a riot, in fact a terrorist attack?”  Ouch.

Biden counters well, saying it is 1st and foremost a tragedy.  Not wanting to be equivocal, he then immediately vows we will find those responsible and bring them to justice.  He rightly notes that killing Osama bin Laden was about more than “getting” 1 man; it was about restoring order and demonstrating our means and commitment to find those who kill Americans.

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