Musings, ‘malarkey’ and other stuff from the Veep debate

October 14, 2012

The vice presidential candidates came to Kentucky for one of the most substantive debates in years — a clear, energetic argument over policy differences that left their bosses’ recent performance in the dust.

Here are some observations from Thursday night’s debate at Centre College in Danville between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Memorable malarkey

Political pundits love memorable debate lines, and they figured these two Irish Catholic candidates would not disappoint. Only minutes into the debate, Biden delivered the first of many colorful rebuttals to Ryan’s sometimes inaccurate characterizations of the Obama administration’s record.

“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said, using an old-fashioned Irish term for nonsense. “This is a bunch of stuff,” he continued, puzzling moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who asked what he meant.

“Well it means it’s simply inaccurate,” Biden explained.

“It’s Irish,” Ryan added.

“We Irish call it malarkey,” Biden continued.

Photo by Mark Cornelison

Biden seemed determined not to repeat Obama’s mistake of not aggressively challenging Romney’s characterizations of the nation’s problems, how they came about and how the administration has tried to address them.

When Ryan criticized the more than $800 billion in federal “stimulus” spending the Obama administration used early in its term to try to keep the Great Recession it inherited from becoming a depression, Biden made a spirited defense.

Republicans have claimed “stimulus” spending as a waste of money that created no jobs, although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.

Biden then tried to make Ryan look like a hypocrite by noting that he had twice sought “stimulus” money for Wisconsin companies.

No pushover

Ryan, who at age 42 is 27 years younger than Biden, was poised and articulate. He calmly held his own for most of the debate.

Ryan was a much more convincing advocate for conservative economic policies than Romney, who in his first debate suddenly morphed from an arch-conservative trying to shore up his base to a moderate trying to win over undecided voters.

Ryan and Biden’s point-counterpoint arguments about Social Security, Medicare, tax policy and approaches to deficit reduction underscored the sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues. It was as good a discussion by party standard-bearers as voters are likely to hear this fall.

Ryan had done his homework and spoke knowledgeably about foreign policy. But while he sharply criticized the Obama administration’s actions regarding Libya, Iran and Syria, he was unable to say specifically what a Romney administration would do differently.

That gave Biden an opening to portray Ryan and Romney’s criticisms as “bluster” and “loose talk”. He implied that their attitudes could be as dangerous as the Bush administration swagger that got America mired in long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The last thing we need now is another war,” Biden said.

No ‘civility’ pledge

For the record, both campaigns declined a request from Centre’s student government leaders to sign a new “civility pledge.” The pledge was a voluntary but popular student initiative last year intended to govern their own conduct.

The pledge says: “I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community.”

“They thought it was a good idea, but I think they were averse to setting a precedent,” said Patrick Cho, Centre’s student government president. “It was disappointing, but I understand why.”

Debate demeanor

Televised debates are as much about theatrical performance as substance. How a candidate presents himself is often more important than what he has to say. Most voters seem to want confident, empathetic leaders, not policy wonks.

Aggressiveness tends to be seen as a sign of strength, as long as it doesn’t go too far. Passivity is viewed a sign of weakness. But the line is thin and subjective.

Republicans complained after the debate that Biden was rude and condescending toward Ryan. But Democrats said the same thing about Romney’s demeanor toward Obama during their Oct. 3 debate in Denver. What do most undecided voters think? We will find out on election day.


Both VP candidates do well in debate, but the winner is Centre

October 12, 2012

DANVILLE — Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, both gave solid, aggressive performances when they met Thursday night at Centre College for their only debate of the campaign.

So who won? Your opinion probably depends on which one you liked better before the 90-minute debate began.

Biden learned a lesson from President Barack Obama’s passive first debate two weeks ago with his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Biden gave a forceful defense of the Obama administration’s record, while attacking Romney and Ryan’s “bluster and loose talk” on Middle East policy.

Photo by Mark Cornelison

While Obama didn’t bring up Romney’s controversial “47 percent” comment in his debate, Biden jumped on it repeatedly. He accused the Republican ticket of trying to marginalize people such as his parents, average people he grew up in Scranton, Pa., and even troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Ryan shot back, saying Romney’s words didn’t come out quite right — something Biden should know about, a reference to his reputation for verbal gaffes.

Biden avoided such gaffes in this debate, and he repeatedly pushed back against his serious, young opponent’s statements by laughing, shaking his head and constantly interrupting him.

Biden did what he needed to do in this debate: provide a forceful defense of the Obama administration’s record, policies and plans.

But Ryan also did what he needed to do: try to undermine that record and argue that he and Romney offer better solutions to the nation’s problems.

Moderator Martha Raddatz, a foreign policy specialist at ABC News, did an admirable job of trying to keep the debate on track. She tried to pin both candidates down when they evaded answers or hedged comments.

Biden’s strongest moments came when he accused Romney and Ryan of wanting to cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. And after Ryan criticized the Obama administration’s stimulus spending, Biden recalled how Ryan put in many requests to get some of that money for his Wisconsin district.

But Ryan made a strong case, too, arguing that Romney’s policies would promote more economic growth. Ryan’s closing statement was better than that of Biden, who grew more mellow and serious in the final minutes of the debate after Raddatz asked them to each discuss their Roman Catholic faith and how it influenced their views on abortion.

Whatever impact this debate has may not last beyond Tuesday, when Obama and Romney have their second debate in Hempstead, N.Y. They will take questions from “undecided” voters in a town-hall format. Their final debate is Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

The longest-lasting win may be for Centre College and Danville, which showed for the second time in a dozen years how to host a vice presidential debate in style.


Can Biden’s Danville performance give Obama campaign a rebound?

October 7, 2012

Who could have guessed that President Barack Obama would suddenly be depending on Vice President Joe Biden’s communications skills to get his re-election campaign back on track? That’s right, the same Joe Biden who has an uncanny ability to say the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that’s the way it is as Centre College in Danville plays host Thursday to Campaign 2012’s next big event: the only vice presidential debate between Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Centre was already feeling good about having been chosen to host the veep debate for the second time in a dozen years. Now, thanks to Obama’s feeble performance last Wednesday in his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even more attention will be focused on Danville.

“The interest and the contacts have really picked up in the past few days,” said Centre spokesman Michael Strysick.

More than 3,200 media credentials have been issued for the debate, including 600 to international journalists and broadcast technicians from 40 countries.

Credentialing closed a couple of weeks ago, but interest was already strong because of Ryan’s selection for the GOP ticket. It raised hopes that this would be more than the usual vice presidential debate — a sparring match between two people whose election is of no real consequence unless something happens to the president.

When Biden faced off four years ago in St. Louis against Sarah Palin, much of the anticipation focused on whether she would be able to convey a coherent thought.

But Ryan is the anti-Palin: smart and articulate, with a strong command of policy and data. He is one of conservatism’s rising intellectuals. Among many GOP faithful, especially Tea Party types, Ryan is more popular and respected than Romney.

During 14 years in the House, Ryan has become a leader in developing and proposing conservative fiscal policies. He is most famous for his draconian budget plan that would cut $5 trillion in government spending over a decade.

While Biden is an experienced legislator who campaigns with a man-of-the-people folksiness, he has never been considered a thought leader. House Speaker John Boehner predicted this summer that the Ryan-Biden debate could be “the greatest show on the planet.”

“With these two on the same stage,” Village Voice political blogger John Surico wrote last week, “we have a situation that is akin to a Thanksgiving Dinner where the dorky cousin is trying to outsmart the drunken uncle.”

But if Biden can avoid his gift of gaffe, he has a chance do well on Centre’s stage. That is because televised debates are more about performance than policy. They favor showmen over wonks, which is a big reason that Romney came off looking so much better than Obama did last Wednesday night.

Obama didn’t make mistakes; he just missed opportunities. He rambled while Romney was crisp. He was passive while Romney was assertive. Romney’s sudden shift from right-wing rhetoric to moderate reason seemed to throw Obama off balance. Romney looked straight into the camera when he spoke; Obama’s eyes were too often focused elsewhere.

The single vice presidential debate is particularly well-suited for sharp elbows. The debaters often can get away with saying meaner things than the top guys on the ticket. Both Ryan and Biden are likely to spend more time going after the presidential candidate who isn’t there than the guy across the stage.

Debates tend to favor challengers, because incumbents have a record to defend. But, in this case, Biden has an opportunity to make hay by attacking Ryan’s radical proposals for reshaping the federal budget and Medicare.

Ryan is coming to Danville to attack the Obama administration’s record, but also to try to sell his and Romney’s ideas.

Biden’s challenge will be to defend the administration’s record and explain why Romney and Ryan are wrong. He must show more passion and energy than Obama did last week. But here’s the question: Can Biden go on the offensive without being offensive?

Kentucky’s moment in the campaign spotlight should be a good show.


Centre students will ask VP candidates to sign their ‘civility pledge’

September 12, 2012

Centre College students David Miller, left, president of Centre Young Democrats; Patrick Cho, president of the Student Government Association; Ben Boone, president of the student Senate; and Luke Wetton, president of Centre Young Republicans, showed off a “civility pledge” that classmates have signed. Photo by Tom Eblen

DANVILLE — David Miller is president of Centre College Young Democrats. Luke Wetton is president of Centre Young Republicans. They have different political philosophies, and they have debated each in the campus theater.

But they also are good friends. They eat lunch with the same group of students almost every day, and they hang out together most Friday and Saturday nights.

“We talk politics all the time, but with the understanding that disagreeing with the other’s political viewpoints is not a personal attack,” said Miller, 21, a senior from Orlando, Fla.

“The reason David and I have a good relationship is that we’re in an environment where we can relate to each other and realize we’re not that different,” said Wetton, 20, a junior from Russellville.

One thing they do agree on is the “civility pledge” that Centre’s Student Government Association created last year. It is a simple statement that covers a lot of ground: “I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community.”

Virtually all of Centre College’s 1,300 students have signed the pledge voluntarily, said Patrick Cho, the student government president. When Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, come to Centre’s campus Oct. 11 for their only face-to-face debate before the election, students will ask them to sign it, too.

“If there are two people who are really going to get into it a battle of words and wits onstage, I think Paul Ryan and Joe Biden are the people to do it, and to do it well,” Miller said. “But I don’t think either of them are going to have a problem remaining civil and not insulting one another. They know what’s expected of them.”

Cho said the pledge grew out of conversations among Student Government Association members about the kind of campus culture they wanted to encourage.

The wording was borrowed from an admonition students often hear from Centre President John Roush: “Do your best, be your best, no regrets.”

Students have rallied around the pledge because, unlike most college honor codes, the idea came from students rather than administrators or faculty, said Ben Boone, 22, a senior from Nicholasville and president of the student Senate.

“There’s something very real and tangible about one student saying to another, ‘We can have political disagreements, but there’s no reason why you have to call me an idiot and I have to call you a liar,'” Miller said.

Cho said he wasn’t aware of any students who have declined to sign the pledge. In fact, he said, a popular fashion accessory on campus is a yellow wrist band that says, “Be Your Best. No Regrets.”

The debate — Centre’s second, after hosting the 2000 vice presidential debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney — has increased students’ interest in politics. Both the Democrat and Republican student organizations have seen membership soar. Cho said student government is leading a voter-registration drive.

“One of the things our generation gets accused of is being politically apathetic, but I don’t think that’s true,” Cho said.

But the young people said they are turned off by the hyper-partisan, money-influenced demagoguery and no-compromise attitudes prevalent in politics today. “People are yearning for something different,” Cho said.

Miller and Wetton said they think the biggest problem with the baby boomers who run the country is that, unlike their predecessors, they don’t have personal relationships with their political opponents.

“Previously, there seemed to be more understanding that politicians were elected to work together,” Miller said. “Not to stand on opposite sides of the chamber and shout each other down. That’s not a way to get anything done.”

What advice would these Centre students give their elders?

“Calm down, share a meal together,” Miller said. “Because we’re in Kentucky, have some bourbon together. Having a good relationship outside of work helps.”

Wetton encouraged political leaders to think about their legacy.

“If these people thought about that very carefully, they would realize that there is more value in being able to say we came together and sometimes agreed to disagree, but we made progress,” he said. “That’s better than always sticking to your guns and putting the country at risk.”