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Joe Biden showed up for the debate. He was engaged and engaging. He expressed his well deserved impatience with the wild claims and nitpicking criticisms of his opponent. Viewers saw energy, confidence, a willingness to mix it up. The mainstream media is arguing that his scornful smiles and interruptions hurt Biden, just as Ryan’s permanent smirk irritated. But that’s a quibble. Biden gave Democrats a pulse again, at a time when they badly needed it.
On substance, despite the exchanges, the debate failed to elucidate the fundamental differences between the candidates and the campaigns. On foreign policy, Ryan seemed intent on issuing broadside attacks on the failure of the Obama foreign policy for pursuing policies that Romney and Ryan claim they endorse. Our position in the Middle East is unraveling because the sanctions imposed came too late or without congressional approval? They'll follow the president's policy in getting troops out of Afghanistan, but don't want to tell anyone. They would have been tougher sooner on Egypt's Mubarak (but only in retrospect, not at the time).
Ryan summoned the “confidence fairy” – the belief that election of Romney would lift the economy by giving new confidence to business – to work in foreign policy. Just elect Mitt and Paul, and the Iranian Ayatollahs will retreat in fear. One look at Mitt’s CEO glare and they’ll start dismantling their nuclear program.
On domestic policy, Ryan continued Romney’s effort to soften their posture. Their plan to lower tax rates won’t help the affluent or hurt the middle class. Their plan to end Medicare will give young people more choices and the same guarantee and save money. Their plan to cut spending won’t hurt anyone. Their commitment to raise military spending is really a commitment not to cut it. And so on.
Ryan asserts the duck and cover howlers well, with the angelic face of a choir boy covering the fact that he’s been smoking in the back hall. But with Biden pressing him, the pose got tiresome – and less and less credible. “Trust your gut on this, folks,” Biden said. And those listening knew exactly what he meant. Ryan was cute but too cute.
Vice Presidential debates are sideshows. Don’t expect any movement in the polls. But this one was instructive. Biden showed energy and spirit from an administration that has seemed listless and bereft of ideas. Ryan showed the glib and slippery hokum that enables modern conservatives to sell their extreme ideas to the unwary. But the number of unwary is declining – and Joe Biden surely helped wake up more than a few last night.
One departee. Asked about abortion, Ryan went pious: “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith.” But Ryan’s budget is, as the Catholic Bishops pointed out, a direct offense to the social gospel of the Catholic Church. Biden muttered about this under his breath, but never called Ryan on it. Ryan’s “faith” in social policy isn’t Catholic; it comes from the teachings of an atheistic novelist named Ayn Rand, whose ravings are the reason, Ryan states, he got into politics, and whose gospel he says he reads regularly.
But this is TV. And that’s too fancy a point for prime time.