After last week's presidential debate ignored key domestic issues affecting Americans, the vice-presidential contest began with twenty minutes on Libya and Iran. But it soon got on track. To the glee of nervous Democrats, Joe Biden gave his debate performance of a lifetime. He made all the key points that Obama failed to make last week, often doing so multiple times. Biden stayed on the offensive, continually rebutted Paul Ryan on the facts, and exhibited a powerful fighting spirit. Will his strong performance matter? A CBS instant poll found Biden won among undecideds by a nearly 20% margin. But I was watching in 1988 when Lloyd Bentsen delivered the greatest line in VP debate history when he rebuffed Dan Quayle’s attempt to seize the mantle of Jack Kennedy. Bentsen destroyed Quayle in that debate, but Bush-Quayle defeated Dukakis-Bentsen. Biden likely stopped Romney’s already slowing momentum, and made Democrats feel better about the race. But a VP debate victory has never changed the dynamics of an election.
Joe Biden gave the type of debate performance that, if given by Barack Obama last week, would have ended the race. Obama supporters can only hope that the President was carefully taking notes so that he improves his performance at next week’s debate (and that he also watches Elizabeth Warren’s takedown of Scott Brown earlier last week, which may well have given her the race).
Paul Ryan’s problem is that he comes across as an uncaring elitist. And Biden reinforced this image by pounding Ryan as an advocate for hedge fund managers and those making more than $8 million a year.
The biggest surprise of the debate for casual observers was likely Biden’s extraordinary knowledge of facts and issues. So often portrayed as a bumbler and a master of malapropism, Biden showed a far greater understanding of the specifics of issues than Ryan, Romney or Obama.
To be fair, Biden’s chief expertise has long been foreign policy in a debate heavily weighted toward that area. This is also Ryan's weakness. Unlike Biden, he could not say that he had been to Afghanistan and Iraq twenty times, or had talked multiple times to "Bibi" (Israeli leader Netanyahu). Ryan was clearly overmatched on this issue.
A Sad Comment on U.S. Politics
We’ve now had three hours of debates without a single mention of immigration, education, housing, poverty, or economic and social inequality. We live every day with the impact of climate change, but environmental policies have been completely ignored.
Abortion rights was mentioned only because Ryan brought it up in response to a question about his religion. And his announced intention to effectively abolish abortion may have been his single biggest debate mistake (if it is true that Obama's biggest mistake last week was not addressing issues of concern to unmarried women, than Ryan certainly alarmed this constituency by claiming his Catholic background required him to support imposing his will on all women by banning nearly all abortions).
The Supreme Court only came up at the very end of the VP debate. Biden made the point about a Scalia-type appointee reversing Roe v Wade, but its hard to believe that the candidates have not been directly asked what they want in a Supreme Court justice.
A debate process that spends more time on the 9/11 attack in Libya, or on Syria, than all of the above issue combined is nothing short of disgraceful. And it shows the extent to which elite opinion dominates questions asked in these debates, particularly the near obsession with obscure foreign policy issues of low priority for most Americans.
It’s no wonder that assessments of the presidential debate focused on style over substance; when the major issues affecting the daily lives of Americans are ignored, it becomes a question of which candidate better propounded his “convictions.”
Will there ever be a question asked about the Occupy Movement? About the candidates' stances on raising the minimum wage? The role of money in politics and impact of Citizens United? About infrastructure needs and strategies for public investment?
Don’t hold your breath.
Have the words "labor unions" even been mentioned in the two debates? Many Republicans (and some Democrats) are regularly bashing teachers unions, so why is this topic now off limits? It's as if Wisconsin never happened---or that debate moderators are too uncomfortable to talk about it.
Unlike Romney last week, Ryan played to his conservative base. And Biden played to the 47% of Americans Romney says take no personal responsibility for their lives, and the 30% Ryan says are “takers.”
Biden talked about “the 47%” so much you’d think he was compensating for Obama never mentioning it last week. He also foreshadowed the issues Obama will highlight in next week’s debate.
After experiencing the joy of the Giants sweep, Biden's performance made it quite a day for the San Francisco Bay Area.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century