I have to confess when I was growing up I remember sometimes irritating my little brother so much he would start throwing punches. When he did that I would put my hand on his head so he couldn’t reach me and he would keep flailing away getting madder and madder with each swing while I ignored him. The Vice Presidential debate reminded me of that.
The Obama debate team advisory group definitely needs a shakeup because they prepared Joe Biden for the last debate not for this one. Anyone with any brains could have predicted that after Obama’s performance in the last debate Joe Biden would be in full attack mode and he did not disappoint. The Republicans counted on that.
Again, as with the last debate, I figure by now everyone has made up their mind, so let me comment on other factors that seem to be attracting attention.
Marshall McLuhan is all but forgotten these days, but back in the 1960s and 70s all he had to do was sneeze and everyone would remark how brilliant he was. He was like Chauncy Gardiner, the Peter Sellers’ character in Being There who makes matter-of-fact or cryptic statements and soon everyone thinks he’s a genius.
McLuhan was most famous for the phrase “the medium is the message,” which everyone thought was profound, but nobody knew what it meant. But it was something you could throw out in the middle of a conversation when you didn’t know what else to say and people would think you had read McLuhan which meant you might not be a genius but you understood one, which is about as close as you can get.
The one phrase McLuhan threw out that was applied to the 1960 debates between Nixon and Kennedy was that television was a “cool” medium where “hot” personalities did not come off well. The analysis of those debates said Kennedy won because he was cool while Nixon was hot.
I thought about that in terms of the Biden-Ryan debate. Here Ryan was the cool one and Biden the hot one. The “hot”/”cool” analogy has since been pretty well debunked by political television talk shows that remind me of relatives arguing around the dinner table. It strikes me as fascinating that Republicans faulted Biden for being “rude” for his facial reactions to Ryan when Bill O’Reilly and company do that all the time.
Given that we are used to seeing all kinds of behavior on television these days, Biden’s facial expressions are not what the substance of a debate is all about. If we are going to grade debates on whose suit is nicer or their so-called “body language” then we are going to end up with a robot for President.
As an independent I am interested in what they said more than how they said it.
Energizing the Base
It was clear each candidate had a carefully-planned script designed to energize their base. That suggests to me the internal polling by both camps in showing too few undecideds to make a difference and that from here on the campaign will be about who can turn out their supporters.
Biden had been coached to be feisty. His job was to react indignantly to any perceived attack on the President. To pounce on any fact that was wrong or twisted. To passionately defend the administration’s record and the values of the Democratic Party. Biden carried out his mission perfectly. After the debate Democrats were energized again.
The reviews from the media are mixed about the first two parts of Biden’s mission, but on third part he was brilliant. Although some commentators thought his closing was weak, I thought it was one of his best moments. He calmed down and spoke genuinely from the heart about the values which had guided his political career.
The entire speech was structured around a defense of the level playing field. It is the first time I have heard a Democrat use that phrase for years. If there is a moment in Biden’s performance worth taping it is this one. Hopefully Barack Obama will get the message and talk more about the level playing field.
Last year Paul Ryan gave what I thought was the most effective reply to the President of any Republican. What made it effective is that Ryan has a rare ability to weave key facts around a carefully structured answer that sounds logical. That was much on display in the debate but no more so than in his closing remarks.
Ryan had also been coached to behave much the way I did when my little brother was throwing punches at me. He would hold Biden at arm’s length–even ignore him–with the hope that it would rile up Biden even more. At times it worked. Biden appeared frustrated by Ryan’s refusal to give specific answers. He must have asked sixteen times for specifics on the Romney-Ryan budget and never received an answer. Ryan seemed to almost revel in Biden’s frustration. If Biden’s mission had been to be passionate, Ryan’s was to inflame that passion. He succeeded. The picture above captures his own smug satisfaction.
For those still trying to make up their minds all you need to do is watch the last five minutes of the debate to help you understand where each candidate is coming from. Up to that point (except for one other moment which I will get to) the debate had been rough and uneven with both candidates talking past each other as much as talking to each other.
The closing statements made up for that. It was probably the best finish I have seen to a debate in quite some time.
The Abortion Moment
Moderator Martha Raddatz did a credible job of trying to keep both candidates in line, but her best moment was when she asked both candidates about abortion. To her credit she did not ask any of the more obvious questions, but asked each candidate to explain how their faith played a role in their position on the issue.
Ryan looked stunned and there was an awkward—and too long—moment of silence before he replied, as if he had not rehearsed an answer to this one. Here he was caught squarely in the contradictions of the Romney campaign because it is no secret Ryan is a rigid anti-abortion ideologue who opposes abortion under any circumstances.
In his answer he seemed to be trying to somehow take this rigid position (“life begins at conception”) and reconcile it with the Romney position that allows abortion in the case of rape, incest or the health of the mother. Ryan has disagreed with that and was clearly uncomfortable stating the Romney position. If there is a moment in this debate when the Romney camp wonders whether this debate cost them the election this was it.
Much as in his closing statement, Biden was thoughtful and subdued. He acknowledged the position of his church on the issue and how he as a Catholic was personally obligated to follow the teachings of his church, but then came what may have been Biden’s best moment. Looking straight into the camera with obvious emotion he said that did not give him the right to tell other religions how to think about abortion and—even more important—it did not give him the right to intervene in a discussion between a woman and her doctor. Biden then went on to note the next President will probably get to name at least two new Supreme Court justices, which means if Romney wins Rowe will likely be overturned.
The gender gap has been discussed almost as an afterthought in this year’s campaign, but it won Obama the White House in 2008. If there is a key turning point it this year’s campaign Biden’s answer on abortion so far wins the prize. Between Ryan’s answer and Biden’s clear, unequivocal reply the choice could not be clearer.
Suddenly amidst all the noise about budgets and deficits and what to do about Syria an important moment of clarity emerged in this campaign. It comes down to abortion. There was an excellent op ed piece in the New York Times about why conservatives should support Obama Care. Its most important observation was that the main reason certain Republicans oppose it is because of abortion.
Social conservatives’ hostility to the health care act is a natural corollary to their broader agenda of controlling women’s bodies. These are not the objections of traditional “conservatives,” but of agitators for prying, invasive government — the very things they project, erroneously, onto the workings of the president’s plan. Decrying the legislation for interfering in the doctor-patient relationship, while seeking to pass grossly intrusive laws involving the OB-GYN-patient relationship, is one of the more bizarre disconnects in American politics.
That is why Romney is back tracking on his Massachusetts plan: it is no longer consistent with his ever-changing position on abortion. Paul Ryan is at least consistent. Romney has dramatically changed his—and that is very scary. As several documentaries and press reports have pointed out, he has yet to give a satisfactory explanation about his change. If someone changes their views on something so fundamental, what else are they willing to change in the name of political expediency?
Why Abortion Is Crucial
As the son and grandson of political refugees, I find it amusing that abortion is labeled a “woman’s issue.” It certainly is for every woman because reproductive care is the only area of medicine in which other people make decisions about what is and is not allowed. Yes, there are rules about drug use and certain procedures are forbidden, but my kidney is my own and ultimately I get to decide if I want a certain type of care. If you are a woman that is not true of your reproductive organs. They have become political footballs where you get no say in the matter.
But abortion is more than that. It is, as anti-abortion advocates often say, a human rights issue. What Ryan made very clear is that this is a case where a religious belief is being forced upon the rest of us. If government can force everyone to accept one religious belief what is to prevent them from enforcing another? Where does the boundary between church, synagogue or mosque door and door of Congress lie?
Are we to have an American version of Sharia, the conservative Muslim legal doctrine that has caused so many problems across the world? Years ago Republicans asked John Kennedy if the Vatican would be in the White House if he were elected. Now we have come full circle. Ryan’s answer when it comes to abortion seemed to be “Yes.”
Never has that boundary been made more specific than by Justice Robert Jackson in West Virginia vs. Barnette. The case involved the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag. Jackson, who presided over the Nuremburg Trials, made what is still the single most important statement about the separation of church and state:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
The Vice Presidential debate made plain one set of candidates in this election would ignore that statement; the other would defend it. The choice is now ours.
For this independent the election suddenly became much clearer.
Posted by: liberalamerican