Once again we are pleased to have Robert David Sullivan offering his analysis of the latest debate:
As with the first presidential debate, I’m putting down my thoughts without hearing or reading any analysis (or tweets), and I can’t imagine Obama supporters feeling reassured right now.
The Republican message has become clear and consistent: What have you got to lose? In an inverse of the adage “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream,” Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have both used their debate appearances to argue that there’s no risk, only potential gain, in voting in a new presidential administration. It’s not that they’ve pivoted to the center of the political spectrum. They’re running on the widely mocked statement of another Massachusetts governor who was nominated for president: Democrat Michael Dukakis, who said, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence.” George H.W. Bush countered this idea with attacks on Dukakis’s values, including his insufficient allegiance to the American flag. I’m not sure what Obama can do as a response.
Tonight Ryan repeatedly argued that a President Romney will boost economic growth, “tackle the debt crisis,” and stop the “unraveling” of American foreign policy. He also reassured voters that there will be no weakening of Social Security and Medicare benefits (“We are not going to jeopardize this program,” he said of the latter) and no shifting of the tax burden onto the middle class. Following Romney’s lead, he declined to explain exactly how a cut in tax rates – the key piece of the GOP economic plan -- can be lowered without a huge deficit increase; the virtual elimination of a social safety net; or the elimination of tax breaks, such as the home mortgage deduction, that benefit middle-class households. “You fill in the details,” during negotiations with Congress, Ryan explained while Joe Biden sputtered in disbelief.
Nothing shook Ryan from his “Why not just try a new guy?” message. The only hint of a specific change in policy – as opposed to vague notions like “championing small business” and promising not to “project weakness” to foreign adversaries – came in the last question, about abortion. Even here, however, Ryan spoke out against “activist” judges and implied that a Romney administration would sign pro-life legislation that passes Congress, but he did not suggest that the administration would initiate new legislation restricting the legality of abortions. His obvious passion on the topic made me think he wanted to say more, but Romney must have been pleased that he stayed on message: We’re here to fix things, not impose an agenda.
The demeanor of the two candidates matched the mood of the campaigns. Ryan was mostly poker-faced and could frequently be seen taking long sips from his water glass – as if to show off his steady hand. (By the end, I also figured out whom he sounds like: Conan O’Brien.)
Biden (who now looks disconcertingly like Lou Dobbs) was far more theatrical, in the manner of Matlock or a trial lawyer playing to the jury with smiles, head shakes, and even an “Oh, God!” in the middle of a Ryan statement. As someone who is also exasperated by the Republican ticket’s apparent success at obscuring its, well, severely conservative views, I could sympathize with Biden, but he might have been too “hot” for TV. He called Ryan’s statements “malarkey” and “a lot of stuff”; I don’t know if he gets points for coming right up to calling his opponent a liar without saying it.
As for moderator Martha Raddatz, her preference for foreign policy topics did not help Biden. Almost the entire first half hour, and half of the entire debate, was on foreign policy questions. This is far too much, given how much weight actual voters give to foreign policy issues. (Justifiably, since it’s far harder to predict how a party will govern on these issues.) This meant that half of the debate featured Ryan boasting about the new resolve of a Romney administration (“We’ll call a terrorist act for what it is”) while Biden tried to explain nuances of diplomacy and looked defensive.
Robert David Sullivan