Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin spar in the vice presidential debate at Centre College, Thursday in Danville, Ky. (Rick Wilking/AP, Pool)
Relieved. That’s how the Democrats must have felt Thursday night watching Vice President Joe Biden debate Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan.
Time and time again the public saw why, in spite of a proclivity for putting his foot in his mouth, Biden was put on the ticket in the first place. He talks the way real people talk. Right out of the box he told Ryan that his views on Iran’s nuclear weapon were “a bunch of stuff.” Iran may be making fissile material (the stuff that sustains nuclear explosions) but “they don’t have a weapon to put it in.” His attack on Ryan’s Medicare plan was one of the strongest points in the evening. Unlike his boss he brought up the infamous 47 percent remark and pointed out that not only were his Mom and Dad in the 47 percent, so were the soldiers in Afghanistan (soldiers in combat don’t pay income taxes.)
But to me the high point for Biden was when he called Ryan on the need to supply specific cuts to pay for tax cuts. The standard response from the Republicans was, and has been, that we’ll take it out of the tax loopholes — known as “tax expenditures” in Washington-speak. And the Republicans are right on this point — there are lots and lots of dollars in tax expenditures. However, the reason they never tell you which tax expenditures they’d cut is because the biggest tax expenditures are not for big fat corporations. Nope, the biggest tax expenditures by far are the ones that you and me and other middle class people love!
Last night Biden lifted the veil on that one, pointing out that to even begin to get enough money to pay for tax cuts of the size the Republicans are talking about, you’d have to cut the mortgage interest deduction and you’d have to start counting employer paid health care as part of taxable income. The howls from the middle class would be heard from coast to coast. The only people who wouldn’t howl would be the really rich for whom these deductions are minor and the really poor who don’t own houses or have employer paid health care. Good for Biden for finally putting that on the table.
In the end, Biden may have stopped the slide that was beginning to terrify Democrats but that was about all a vice president could be expected to do. Vice presidential debates don’t usually change very much. Paul Ryan showed that he was smart and experienced and that if tragedy struck he could be President — a threshold that the last Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, never crossed. And Ryan, in contrast to Biden, managed to keep a fairly cool and polite demeanor all evening.
The only thing that can hurt Biden’s reviews is the fact that he smirked, laughed and interrupted Ryan regularly in the first hour of the debate; calming down only at the end when perhaps he got tired, or just bored. The constant split screen (new to this year’s debates) drew the viewers’ attention to the speaker as well as the listener. One of the undecided voters interviewed later called Biden “disruptive” and at times he seemed rude and condescending. The Democrats have to hope that the late night comics have better material handed to them this week than last night’s debate. Otherwise the slightly manic Biden smirk has the potential to gain traction just as Al Gore’s exasperated sighs did twelve years ago. (In his first presidential debate, Gore was initially judged a strong winner until, as the week wore on, endless repetition of his sighs and head shaking at George Bush’s comments became the butt of jokes. A win turned into a loss in a matter of days.)
Barring that however, Democrats can breathe a sigh of relief — at least until the presidential debate next week.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.