Joe Biden was on fire Thursday night.
Lots of debate on whether or not he was inappropriate or rude, but I think it’s hard to argue that he was not effective. Biden dominated the debate, refusing to let Ryan sanctimoniously lecture on the inadequacies of the Obama record and laughing not only at the blows that he tried to land, but at Ryan’s whole persona and the persona of Mitt Romney as well. Obviously this was a tactical decision on Team Obama’s part, and it has roots in the historical messaging of the campaign.
Early on in the campaign, Obama’s campaign had to make a decision on whether to attack Mitt Romney for the far right positions that he took throughout his 6 year campaign for the presidency, or on his historical habit of changing his positions depending on what office he was running for. They chose the former and, aside from destroying the contention that he was a “job creator,” their campaign was mostly about the extreme positions that Romney had based his campaign on to date. Team Obama knew that this was never an either/or choice, because if Romney started to move towards “Moderate Mitt,” they could always go back to the flip-flopper charge.
Just before Romney locked up the Republican nomination, top advisor Eric Fehrnstrom noted that once a nominee locked up the nomination, it represented a reset for the campaign, sort of like shaking up an Etch-a-Sketch. Most people assumed that this, in fact, would be Romney’s strategy. What most people underestimated was how much the far right prevented Romney from moving to the center. This was made evident in August when Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul dared to mention Romney’s Masachussets health care reform in a positive light and the right wing threw a three stage hissy fit. Ann Coulter even demanded that Andrea Saul be fired for daring to suggest that Romney’s major accomplishment as governor could be seen positively. Given these constraints placed on him by his own party, it was perhaps understandable that Romney would not be able to move effectively to the center, but I think the Obama campaign was surprised how Romney neglected to even try.
Fast forward to last week’s debate, where Romney seemed to disavow many of the themes he ran on. $5 trillion in tax cuts by cutting income tax rates? I don’t have a plan to do that… Cover people with pre-existing conditions? Sure, my plan does that, just like yours… Repeal Dodd-Frank? Well, I’m not for all of it, but we really do need regulation. Business can’t function without regulation, and so on…. Frankly, I think that Obama’s team was surprised by this sudden move to the center because it’s probably unprecedented for a candidate to do it with less than a month to go in the campaign.
The Obama campaign spent millions of dollars convincing America that Mitt Romney was a joke, but in one and a half hours of a debate that Obama just neglected to show up to, Romney effectively turned that on its head, seeming not only presidential, but moderate once again, and in the process, erasing all of the gains Obama made post-convention. Biden’s job last week was to once again make Mitt look like the craven politician that he has always been, and (despite the rhetorical excesses) he did that effectively on Thursday night.
Ryan is the conservative Boy Wonder, but Biden treated him an insolent young punk, laughing when he spoke, looking at him with amazement every time he dared to criticize the Administration, throwing his hands in the air and interrupting him frequently. The pundit class at Fox was outraged (outraged I say!) at Biden’s debate demeanor. The following day we were treated to Dick Cheney on Hannity saying that Biden seemed unstable and that ”It’s not the type of personality I’d like to see in the Oval Office” Ponder that for a second: the guy who invaded the wrong country, shot a man in the face and told a sitting Senator to “Fuck Yourself” on the floor of the Senate thinks Joe Biden is too “volatile” to be Vice President?
To be sure, I thought Biden did take it a little too far (giggling during a discussion of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability was slightly unseemly), but Matt Taibbi summed it up pretty well, arguing that given what Mitt Romney is trying to pull on America, “We should all be rolling our eyes, and scoffing and saying, ‘Come back when you’re serious.’”
The Romney/Ryan ticket decided, with incredible cynicism, that that they were going to promise this massive tax break, not explain how to pay for it, and then just hang on until election day, knowing that most of the political press would let it skate, or at least not take a dump all over it when explaining it to the public. Unchallenged, and treated in print and on the air as though it were the same thing as a real plan, a 20 percent tax cut sounds pretty good to most Americans. Hell, it sounds good to me.
The proper way to report such a tactic is to bring to your coverage exactly the feeling that Biden brought to the debate last night: contempt and amazement. We in the press should be offended by what Romney and Ryan are doing – we should take professional offense that any politician would try to whisk such a gigantic lie past us to our audiences, and we should take patriotic offense that anyone is trying to seize the White House using such transparently childish and dishonest tactics.
Taibbi points to this specific dodge on tax policy, but that analysis can be applied to any number of characteristics of the Romney-Ryan campaign: from his high profile shifts on long held positions like health care, abortion rights and gay rights, to his claim to be a “job creator” when his firm was a “pioneer in outsourcing” American jobs, to his claim that he views debt as a moral imperative, while his tax and defense plans dig a $7 trillion hole in the budget before they try to balance anything, or to the idea that he claims to be someone who wants to tell America “hard truths,” but refuses to name any of the sacrifices he would ask of Americans in order to get to where we need to go, or to Ryan’s derision of the stimulus as “green pork” when he actually wrote to Biden asking that constituents in his district be awarded green energy contracts since the programs “would create jobs and growth,” or to Romney and Ryan’s laughable assertion that they are the would be saviors of Medicare when they were both in favor of a plan to dismantle it last year, or to his constant criticism of Presdent Obama’s foreign policy when they are offering NOTHING different save their vague promises not to “apologize for America.” The only thing consistent about Mitt Romney seems to be his inconsistency and Joe Biden put that into stark relief last week.
Now that Biden has softened up the target, expect that to be a big theme in Tuesday’s debate between Romney and Obama.