Our colleague Jacob Heilbrunn offers nearby the thought that Martha Raddatz won the vice presidential debate on Thursday, with Vice President Biden coming in second and Representative Joe Ryan third, having gotten “thumped” by Biden. Well, as Mark Train said, “It’s difference of opinion that makes horse races.’’ We don’t have horse races here, but we do foster differences of opinion. In that vein, I offer some thoughts about the debate that run somewhat counter my friend Mr. Heilbrunn.
First, Martha Raddatz: she was smooth and prepared, but she wasn’t an entirely neutral referee, given that she allowed Biden to interrupt his opponent repeatedly through the contest. And she herself interrupted the congressman far more often than she did the vice president, thus breaking his train of thought and undercutting his arguments. Thus, it wasn’t an entirely fair fight, which it was her responsibility to ensure.
As for Biden, his smirking and chortling during Ryan’s expressions left him looking disrespectful toward his opponent and the political opposition in general. Bad timing, Mr. Vice President; the American people are tired of the deterioration in political civility that has poisoned the country’s politics in recent years. This display couldn’t have helped with undecided and independent voters.
Beyond that, Biden proved himself a master of the political finesse—making statements that were either untrue or questionable based on context. In touting his administration’s economic sanctions against Iran (which are, truth to tell, worthy of respect), he touted also the country’s relationship with China and Russia. But in reality relations with both countries have deteriorated seriously during President Obama’s tenure and are certainly nothing to tout or even write home about.
Regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, Biden said the “intelligence community’’ reported initially that the attack had started as a demonstration stirred by angers over the now-infamous anti-Muslim film clip produced in America. There is no evidence of this, and, as the Wall Street Journal said, “We doubt that’s what the investigation will ultimately show.’’ He also said, “We weren’t told they wanted more security’’ at the consulate. This was patently untrue, as evidenced by Hill testimony from State Department officials this week.
Biden said the congressman’s budget cut embassy security by $300 million below what the administration asked for. As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler points out, in truth Ryan’s committee set broad spending-cut targets for nondefense programs amounting to 19 percent in 2014. That’s what budget committees do, without specifying precisely where the cuts will come. Thus, there were no specific cuts in embassy security, and Biden was merely extrapolating the overall number, across the board, to come up with his $300 million figure. At best, a finesse.
Biden trotted out the old Mitt Romney quote in which the GOP candidate said he wouldn’t move heaven and earth to get Osama bin Laden. This was evidence, he said, that Romney didn’t appreciate the symbolic significance of such a kill and didn’t fully understand the conflict with Al Qaeda. This ignores what Romney actually said and distorts what he meant. The rest of the quote:
We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person—Osama bin Laden—because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another. This about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.
Whatever one may think about this interpretation of today’s Middle East ferment or the policy implications it poses, it certainly can’t be said that Romney is tone deaf to the realities of Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. That’s what Biden sought to say in putting forth the fragmentary quote, and it was neither accurate nor fair.
On taxes Biden repeatedly talked about the 120,000 families making a million dollars or more a year that are getting, he says, an $800 billion bounty from the Bush tax cuts over ten years. Again a finesse, since Obama’s tax plan would increase taxes not only on such super-high-income people but also on those making $200,000 a year or more as individuals or $250,000 as couples.
He said Ronald Reagan gave specifics on his tax-reform plan—forerunner to the 1986 tax-reform legislation—when he ran for president in 1984. Not true. Reagan posed the concept of tax reform—lower rates and elimination of tax preferences, similar to the Romney-Ryan concept—but left the details to be worked out after the election.
Biden said Romney’s Medicare plan would raise costs for seniors by $6,400, a figure the Obama campaign gets to only through contorted financial manipulations. He said the administration “saved’’ $716 billion from Medicare and “put it back—applied it to Medicare.’’ Highly debatable. He said seniors had not lost Medicare Advantage and weren’t at risk of losing it. Not true.
Biden sought to dismiss Ryan in ways suggesting his opponent was mired in inaccuracies. “I don’t know what world this guy’s living in,’’ he said. He dismissed Ryan’s arguments as “malarkey.’’ At one point, he said, “This is a bunch of (pause) stuff.’’
Radditz did call him on that one. “What does that mean, a bunch of stuff?’’ she asked. Said Biden: “Well, it means it’s simply inaccurate.’’ The subject was Obama’s relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which Biden described as extremely close. That one was a whopper, as the world knows.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster, 2012).