The Sisyphean Task of Assessing Ryan's VP Debate Performance

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

About twenty minutes into last week's Presidential debate, when the Romney strategy of brazen dishonesty and false moderation had become clear, I had the sinking realization that I had to brace myself not just for another 70 minutes of that assault on Americans' intelligence.  I also had four and a half hours of it yet to come, with one VP debate and two more Presidential debates still on the schedule.  The only good thing that I can say now is that we have reached the halfway point in this farce.  The end cannot come soon enough.

It is by now utterly beside the point to try to "score" the debates.  Paul Ryan's performance last night was so devoid of truth that it is impossible even to try to describe what he was doing as "arguing."  Even when he was not following Mitt Romney's strategy of simply repeating flat-out lies, his responses to Vice President Biden's arguments were even more dishonest than the lies that Ryan had started with.  Ryan might as well have said something like, "We will find a magic ring that will make everything work out as we say it will," and when Biden replied, "There are no magic rings," Ryan would have said, "Well, that's because Obama hid the key to the invisible box that contains the clues that tell us where to find the map to the Mountain of the Ring Makers -- and he did this bad thing by raising their taxes."

Yes, I suppose that counts as "arguing" in the sense that Hypothetical Ryan did not merely repeat that they will find the magic ring, but instead tried to "explain" why it seems difficult to find the magic ring.  To call that effective argumentation, however, would simply be to credit child-like fantastic thinking.  Piling new lies upon old lies is not debating.

So it is clearly time for me to give up that ghost.  The debate format, which was always somewhat of a joke, has now been completely degraded.  The political commentators (whom I have, once again, not listened to or read in the time since last night's debate ended) have surely decided which side won the night on the basis of some mysterious and ever-changing definition of "sounding Presidential," or whatever.  Even though blogging makes me a pundit of sorts, I am pleased not to know how to play this content-free game of ignoring substance entirely.

What to do instead?  Ryan provided such a rich smorgasbord of lies and delusional thinking that it would take ten blog posts simply to try to unsnarl them all and even to begin to explain why he is so completely wrong.  In this post, therefore, I will simply offer a short list of observations, including a bit of back-seat driving on what Biden could have said at various points in the debate.

-- The Chutzpah of Fake Bipartisanship: In an odd homage to President Obama's worst strategic decision of his Presidency, the Romney/Ryan people have made it clear that their polling says the same thing that Obama has always believed, which is that the people who decide elections want to see bipartisanship.  Thus, in the most jaw-dropping parts of the debate, Ryan continued to push the prepared talking point that Obama has been unwilling to work with Republicans, and Romney and Ryan would be able to reach across the aisle.  This included repeating the revisionist history about how well Romney worked with a Democratic-controlled legislature in Massachusetts.

More to the point, however, Ryan tried to turn his party into the wronged victim of Obama's supposed partisanship.  Never mind that the leaders of his party continually opposed things that they once supported (such as the creation of a deficit-reduction commission), whenever Obama began to support them.  Never mind that those leaders simply announced, point blank, that their central goal was to prevent Obama from succeeding as President.  None of that mattered, because in Ryan's world the lockstep party-line voting in Congress is somehow Obama's doing.

Biden had a moment or two where he punctured some of Ryan's more ridiculous claims.  He did, for example, beat back Ryan's claim that the current version of Romney's Medicare plan is bipartisan, noting that the Democrats who tried initially to work with Republicans to craft a "centrist" plan -- which, in today's Washington, generally means building a law around Republican orthodoxy, with a dollop of progressivity thrown in around the edges -- have all given up and walked away.  What remains is entirely Tea Party Republicanism.  Biden knew his facts, and he pushed back hard against Ryan's attempts to make Obama seem uninterested in finding nonpartisan approaches.

(As an aside, if I were to try to play the punditry game and guess how Biden's performance was being assessed, I could easily play by the non-rules of the game and call him "forceful and commanding" or "irritable and condescending."  Who knows?  I will say that I do not fault Biden for failing to hit every possible target.  My back-seat driving here is very much a matter of trying to make sense of nonsense with the benefit of a bit more time, not a statement that Biden should have done any of these things.)

-- Death Panels, Again: As in the Presidential debate, the Romney/Ryan strategy included scaring people with the idea that the Affordable Care Act includes panels of "unelected experts" who will be empowered to force doctors not to do what people need to get better.  Obama had tried to explain in his debate that the Independent Payment Advisory Board can do no such thing.  Biden simply used the opportunity to compare Ryan unfavorably to Sarah Palin.  Amazingly, this worked, at least in the sense that Ryan dropped all of the death panels talk for the rest of the debate.  His initial comments were notable, however, in that he added to the nightmare scenario by commenting that the people who will serve on the board do not even have to be doctors, raising the ante in this completely absurd attack line on one of the most important aspects of the health care law.

-- Scaring People is Bad, Unless We Are the Ones Doing It: The death panels canard is even more insane when one remembers another Ryan theme for the night, which was that the Obama/Biden attacks on the Republicans' Medicare plans reflected a deliberate strategy of scaring people.  Taking a quote from Obama in 2008 out of context, Ryan returned repeatedly to a defense that boils down to this: "Saying bad things about us is wrong, because that's just scare-mongering."  So, apparently Ryan and Romney can say anything at all, and propose policies that would genuinely harm people, but anyone who points this out is not playing fair.  Biden never responded to this, even though it is as mockable as anything else Ryan said all night (which is really saying something).

-- Ryan Runs Away From His Record: Romney clearly put Ryan on the ticket because he needed to shore up support from his extremist base.  Ryan would not even bother to defend his own budget plans, even though Biden at least twice pointed out that those plans were both passed in the House and endorsed by Romney.  Ryan continued the complete flip-flop by which he presents his policies as friendly to the middle class, attacking Obama's cost savings on Medicare as an attack on recipients.  Ryan has so much credibility among his base that no one takes him seriously on this.  Everyone knows that Romney will do what Ryan and his paymasters want on economic policy, which is to off the "moochers" that Romney and Ryan scorn (who are also known as "the 47%").

-- The Zinger That Wasn't: Speaking of the 47%, Ryan's most obviously canned moment was when he drew a laugh from the crowd by trying to defend Romney's disgusting attacks on the people who supposedly pay no taxes, by saying that Biden (of all people) knows what it is like to say something unfortunate.  I have no doubt that the people on Fox loved this, because they have been pushing even the most innocuous Biden misstatements as "gaffes" for the last four years.  And, to be sure, Biden has had some truly embarrassing moments that he would surely like to take back.  When Ryan tried to play on Biden's reputation for inapt phrasing (to be polite about it), it should have put Biden on the defensive.

Instead, Biden smiled and responded without hesitation: "But I always say what I mean."  Less effective was his follow-up, where he stumbled over the line, "If you believe that Romney's comments were a matter of unfortunate phrasing, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you."  Notwithstanding how one views Biden's response to the attempted zinger, it continues to amaze me that the best the Romney/Ryan people can come up with to defend Romney's comments is that that were poorly phrased.  This was not a matter of listening to someone having something inoffensive to say, but saying it in a way that inadvertently caused offense.  Romney's comments were only "poorly phrased" because they were so unvarnished.  Ryan has been pushing this idea that it was all a matter of being misunderstood for a month now.  It is even less believable today than when he first pushed it.

-- Revisionist History on the Debt Ceiling Debacle: Ryan's most deeply dishonest line of argument, however, was surely in his depiction of the "fiscal cliff" and its reductions in defense spending as somehow Obama's fault.  Just a quick review: (1) In March 2011, Republicans in Congress pass a budget that requires increasing the debt ceiling, (2) Within months, they refuse to increase the ceiling unless Obama abandons the just-passed budget and agrees to more cuts in social programs, or they will let the country default on its obligations, (3) The Republicans agree to a law that involves automatic cuts in domestic discretionary and defense spending.  Now that those automatic cuts are set to take effect, it is somehow Obama who wants to cut defense spending.  Biden, whose most effective moments were surely when he pointed out that many defense cuts had been approved by military leaders, never quite pushed back on this as hard as he could.

Trying to analyze all of this nonsense is bad for the soul.  The onslaught of shameless dishonesty from Romney and Ryan is so relentless that we run out of synonyms for "lying."  Whatever it was we saw last night, and whoever is deemed to have won, it was not a debate.  It was not even a discussion.  It was one man lying repeatedly, and another man choosing which lies to expose.  The end cannot come soon enough.