Joltin’ Joe to the Rescue
Can’t get enough of the debates? Neither can we. USF Political Science Professor Michael Gibbons breaks down Thursday’s Vice Presidential face-off.
By now most of the media have weighed in on the Vice Presidential debate. Predictably, almost all ignored the substance and issues and focused on style. Some seem to think that Biden’s chuckling at many of Ryan’s comments was “distracting.” Others pointed out that it was a not too subtle way of marking Ryan’s claims as wrong or as misinformation (“malarkey” is an Irish term used among friends for fibbing/lying; as in “the fish I caught was two feet long” would be malarkey). Getting away from style, the appeal of demagogues, let’s look at the issues.
Social Security/Medicare: It is clear that Romney/Ryan want to privatize Social Security/Medicare. Biden drilled this one home and Ryan, who has advocated and proposed privatization several times, didn’t escape it. (Note: Why anyone would think that individuals investing in the stock market after the panic of 1987, the panic of 2000 and the panic of 2007, is a good idea is beyond me. For example, if you had money invested in the best of index mutual funds (e.g. Vanguard, Fidelity) in 2000, the value of your 401(b) is only now returning to what it was in 1999, and that’s assuming you continued to contribute 10 percent of your income during that period. There’s a reason these days that the super wealthy invest not in the market (or real estate) but in priceless art and automobiles. But privatization will result in great commissions and administrative fees for Wall Street.)
Taxes: Again, the claim that you can cut tax rates by 20 percent and not eliminate those deductions that the middle class draws upon does not add up. Several independent analyses have illustrated this. Just saying that it adds up doesn’t make it so. No matter how many times someone wants to say 10 minus 4 equals 9, it doesn’t.
The Stimulus: Ryan trotted out the old argument that it failed. Biden, who helped oversee the stimulus, countered that despite the fact that when Obama took office the U.S. was hemorrhaging jobs, it is now adding them in the private sector and stressed the impact of the automobile bailout. That saved not only automobile workers’ jobs, but those of all subcontractors who the auto industry helps keep in business, e.g. producers of glass, plastic, hub caps, tires, energy for production, etc., etc. But the best line was Biden’s reference to Ryan’s request for stimulus money with Ryan claiming that it had created jobs. Ryan, of course, is not the only opponent of the stimulus to request money from it (and then take the credit for it existing). Biden’s parting comment, that he would entertain subsequent requests from Ryan was classic.
Abortion: It comes down to this. Romney has changed his position on this, according to his own campaign, no less than three times in the past two weeks. Ryan’s position is clear: his Roman Catholic faith dictates to him that no one, Catholic or not, should have access to abortion. So Ryan would foist his religious beliefs on others. Biden wouldn’t.
But this brings up another point. Both Romney and Ryan are on record as saying that their religious faiths dictate their political and public positions (unlike JFK, who said his Catholicism would not result in rule by the Vatican, a position that Ryan seems not to rule out). If their faith is that important to policy, why isn’t scrutiny of that religious faith a topic of political discussion? After all, if I were running for office and said that Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts dictated my politics, I would expect the philosophy contained in those texts to be a legitimate focus of political scrutiny. If the Book of Mormon is going to set policy for all of us, we should be debating whether or not it contains the values we all can endorse. Keep in mind, it is Romney and Ryan who have brought their religions into the public sphere.
Afghanistan: Ryan’s position was so convoluted (he endorsed the Obama timeline and policy, but then went on to criticize the policy and timeline) it led one observer to comment that Ryan was more lost in Afghanistan than the Russian Army was. His rhetoric on Syria, similarly devoid of specifics, similarly reflected someone who was clearly out of his league.
The Attack on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi: Ryan went after this one big time. The result was a “he said, he said” exchange including Ryan’s falsehood that it was the Administration that issued the first response that came from the American Embassy in Libya. Biden countered that Romney had politicized the issue before getting any information other than that an attack had taken place. So this is how the issue weighs out: Will undecided voters think that the most important thing here is that Obama has to take responsibility because the attack occurred on his watch? Or will they think that Romney politicizing a tragedy is a cheap shot? This one is close to call, but because voters who are undecided at this point are the most inclined to be convinced by the shallow arguments, one liners, and zingers, I think the Romney campaign wins, but for all the wrong reasons.
So the question will be which will have greater effect, the issues or style. One thing is clear, Biden came out ready for the debate in ways that Obama didn’t. Democrats will hope that signals a new, more aggressive stance for the Obama/Biden campaign. The one thing you can’t appear to be in these debates is weak, taken off guard, or befuddled. For the Republicans, at least Ryan didn’t have to get into too many specifics. But whether the same vague, misleading talking points can sustain their attempt to overtake Obama is unclear.
Conclusion: Social scientists know the hazards of making predictions. Political theorists, even those who study American political history, are usually even more cautious. Caution on these kinds of things has never had much appeal to me.
Prediction: Romney/Ryan have peaked.